Environmental Justice Requires Electoral Reform: New Analysis

September 27, 2018
Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

The Center for Science and Democracy has released a new analysis, Building a Healthier Democracy: The Link Between Voting Rights and Environmental Justice, which demonstrates the negative impact of restrictive election laws on voter turnout across Congressional districts (see the report and our impact maps here).

The study provides a snapshot of the conditions that need to be overcome in order to build a healthier democracy in the United States. Environmental pollution reduces voter turnout directly, as seen in the negative impact of poor air quality (as measured through the EPA’s Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators model), as well as indirectly, through the turnout dampening impact of poverty, regional job loss, and other forms of socioeconomic distress (measured using the Economic Innovation Group’s Community Distress Index).

Voting inequalities are further exacerbated by restrictive election laws, many of which have been put in place by the same organizations responsible for climate change disinformation campaigns and other pseudo-science. For example, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was directly involved in the implementation of one of the nation’s worst Congressional gerrymanders in Michigan, and it has supported “proof of citizenship” and discriminatory photo identification requirements in many states. Discriminatory election laws further distort representation by keeping eligible voters out of the process. Our analysis shows that restrictive eligibility laws have a particularly suppressive impact on voter turnout, and that full participation of the electorate will require major electoral reforms.

Building a healthier democracy requires that we recognize the additional burden of restrictive election laws on communities already overburdened by economic and environmental distress. People cannot protect their communities when they are excluded from the process that generates electoral representation and public policy. Uncompetitive elections further reduce voter turnout, insulating political parties and candidates from public accountability. Representation in state legislatures and Congressional delegations is further distorted through racial and partisan gerrymandering that entrenches powerful interests at the expense of responsive government.

Environmental justice and voting rights communities can prioritize their common goal of empowerment by re-engineering U.S. elections through a series of evidence-based reforms. Removing the remaining barriers that keep eligible voters out of the voting process should be the first priority, as our analysis shows that the biggest institutional restraint on turnout occurs through strict registration requirements. Automatic voter registration, which requires citizens to opt out rather than opt in, can also ensure for more secure voter registration lists and automatic updating of voter records. In addition, pre-registration coupled with civics education, as well as early and extended voting periods would secure an open electoral process.

On the back end of the electoral process, where votes are converted into seats and legislative power, our analysis suggests that increasing electoral competition, and preventing state legislatures from engaging in racial and partisan gerrymandering, could significantly improve participation and the policy making process. Currently, our single-seat electoral districts for Congress provide a big incentive to game the districting process in favor of parties over people. We show that gerrymandered states have significantly worse air quality than non-gerrymandered states. Even without gerrymandering, the geographic concentration of voters inevitably produces uncompetitive seats dominated by a single party. Moving to a more proportional allocation of legislative seats in states and in Congress would substantially improve competition over leadership and the responsiveness of the electoral system. If we cannot fix our democracy, it is unlikely that we will fix our climate.

Fortunately, change is already underway in some states. Oregon, California, and nearly a dozen other states have already implemented or adopted automatic voter registration. A surge of voter opposition against gerrymandering is coming to a head this November in states like Michigan, Missouri and Utah, where reformers hope to join an increasing number of states to take districting out of the hands of state legislatures. Our analysis identifies reform movements happening across country and provides interested citizens with important information about how to get involved. Reform starts with engagement, and that means voting this November.