Sporadic Environmental Voters Hold the Power to Shift Elections and Turn Red States Blue

A new report from the Environmental Voter Project claims to have identified a hidden voting bloc in nine states: low-propensity environmental voters.

People cast votes at the Richland County Voter Registration and Elections Office on the second day of in-person absentee and early voting on Oct. 6, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina. Credit: Sean Rayford/Getty ImagesPeople cast votes at the Richland County Voter Registration and Elections Office on the second day of in-person absentee and early voting on Oct. 6, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina. Credit: Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Just over half a year after the last federal election, Nathaniel Stinnett is already looking forward to the next midterm and even to next month, when Detroit will hold its mayoral primary. Stinnett is the founder of the Environmental Voter Project (EVP), which just published a new report showing the potential of registered voters who list the environment as their most important issue but are unlikely to vote in the 2022 midterm.

There are hundreds of thousands of low-propensity environmental voters (LPEVs) in purple states like Georgia and Arizona, both of which narrowly went for Joe Biden in November, the report said.

These voters turn out in presidential years but then don’t vote in local or mid-term elections. They fall largely in the 18-34 age range and are both more likely to be women and less likely to be white than the general voting population.

With cities playing an important role in setting climate policy and regulating transportation, building efficiency and utilities, Stinnett is closely watching the more than 500 mayoral elections across the country this year. One of which, in Anchorage, Alaska, was decided by just over 1,000 votes.

“These seldom-voting environmentalists in cities across America present a tremendously high-leverage opportunity for the climate moment: with a small investment of time and resources from donors and volunteers, environmental voters could overwhelm local elections in 2021 and spur the next wave of robust climate leadership,” Stinnett said. “Indeed, the climate movement could end up achieving more in 2021 than we have in most national elections.”

Melissa Partin, a volunteer with MN350, an environmental nonprofit in St.  Paul, Minnesota, that advocates for renewable energy, said she has seen turnout and engagement with environmental issues spike every four years. Last fall’s election brought a new wave of enthusiasm from “a bunch of young, new voters who are disillusioned with what is going on or not going on with politics,” she said.

The challenge now, she said, is breaking through their veil of disillusionment and the idea that “one vote doesn’t matter,” a myth that keeps young voters away from the polls.

Less numerous but equally important to get motivated, Stinnett said, are the LPEVs in deep-red states like Texas and Alaska. They recently elected a mayor in Anchorage by a margin of just over one thousand votes.

Environmental policy is made at every level, and many state and local governments perform critical environmental services that have a far greater effect on peoples’ everyday lives than the sorts of sweeping environmental policy proposed by presidents or members of Congress.

However, many voters still feel that the biggest and easiest way to make a large impact is to vote for presidential candidates. Sam Streukens of Winona, Minnesota, who has been involved in political activism since the 2018 race to elect Governor Tim Walz, prioritizes voting for presidential candidates because “they can affect more change on the national level… where drastic change is possible.”

The question then is, how to turn these voters out for elections that receive far less coverage and fanfare. Despite its name, the EVP focuses not on specific environmental issues or candidates, but on changing behaviors. The first task is sorting through legions of voter files and identifying voters that list the environment as their top voting priority but, according to public voter roles, have only turned out in presidential election years. This is what qualifies someone as a low-propensity voter; they have voted in the past, but only during the highest-profile elections.

The voters they’ve identified are definitionally invested in taking action on climate change, so instead of trying to sway them on specific policies or politicians, ads appeal to a voter’s sense of how they want to be viewed, because according to Stinnett “even people who don’t vote want to be seen as good voters.”

This is a large part of why Stinnett and his team, along with thousands of volunteers, have oriented their advertising campaigns around messages like how many of a voter’s neighbors showed up for the last election. “Of the 800 elections this year, not all are important to green stuff,” said Stinnett when asked which voters the EVP is prioritizing, “but all are important to changing behaviors.”

As much as they claim to work for every resident of their state or district, elected officials don’t often heed the concerns of people who are unlikely to vote them out of office. Or, as Stinnett puts it, “politicians don’t care about the priorities of non-voters.”

It sounds callous and any politician knows not to say it out loud, but the reality is that people who don’t vote or donate large sums to election campaigns have little say in their government. What the EVP report found about the demographics of LPEVs shows that they are more often young and more often people of color, very nearly the opposite of the most frequent voters in the United States, who are predominantly older and white. This difference reflects the similarly large gulf between Democratic and Republican voters on accepting the reality of human caused climate change.

Elsa Barron is a 2021 graduate of Notre Dame University and a fellow with Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, a group working to tackle the climate crisis from a foundation of their Christian faith.

She said she has voted in two elections so far—the midterms in 2018 and the presidential election in 2020—and considers herself a climate voter. She said she hopes she does not become a low-intensity voter, one that avoids local and midterm elections, because they are very important but in different ways. However, Barron said she understands why some voters, including young voters, may tune out to non-presidential political races.

For climate voters during the Trump administration, she said, “there was excitement, hype and urgency” and so much talk “to get fired up about and inspire people to vote.”

Heading into the 2022 elections, there is less excitement. For state and local races in particular, she said that it can also be hard to find information about candidates, especially for younger people who are largely getting their news from social media.

“It’s hard to vote on candidates when you are not even sure what the positions are,” she added.

But voting in local, state and Congressional races matters. “I witnessed the passage of a climate action plan in the city council in South Bend (Ind.) primarily because of a local push from youth,” Barron said. “It was incredible to watch.”

For Congressional races in the upcoming midterms, she said a lot is going to be at stake and hopes all climate voters will go to the polls.

Barron said she wants to see the Biden climate plan passed by Congress, with more climate action in the future. She also said she wishes it could be done in a bipartisan way. But for now, she said, it is “so important to keep the House and Senate in alignment that favors those kinds of policies.”

John Paul Mejia, a national spokesman for the youth-led Sunrise Movement, said it’s hard to blame young climate voters for failing to vote during any election when candidates on the ballot fail to speak to the urgency of their concerns.

“Give young people something to vote for,” Mejia said. “Give us an option that actually champions the solutions we want to see that can solve the compounding crisis of our time.”

In Republican dominated Kentucky, voter turnout has been abysmal in off-years, reflecting deep apathy and disengagement.

In 2015, for example, just 30.6 percent of registered voters and only 17 percent of voters under the age of 34 elected former Gov. Matt Bevin, the Republican. Turnout was better in the off-year election in 2019 when Bevin narrowly lost to Andy Beshear, the Democrat. Still, only 44 percent showed up at the polls.

“When you don’t vote, your voice isn’t heard,” said Lisa Garrison, a volunteer, and community and political organizer with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a social justice organization. “You get politicians in power who don’t respond to what you feel is important.”

From her experience in Corbin, Kentucky, home to the first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, Garrison said she finds the hardest people to get to the polls are those with lower incomes who don’t view local and state elections as having as much effect on their lives. While that is not the case, she said they nevertheless feel the presidential race is more personally consequential and may not recognize that it’s elected city and state officials who are responsible for “fixing the potholes or making sure you have clean water coming through your pipes.”

So in the off years, she said, organizers have to work that much harder to help voters grasp why local and state elections are important. They have to keep knocking on doors, staffing booths at community events like farmers’ markets, and be willing to listen to voters’ concerns “about dealing with climate change, dealing with coal mines, dealing with dirty water.”

“You have to be open to having hard conversations with people,” she added.

The effort to nudge peoples’ voting behaviors may begin to run into newly passed laws in red states aimed at “voter fraud” that climate activists and other progressives contend are voter suppression measures aimed at people of color.

Both Texas and Georgia, two states that are cited in the Environmental Voter Project’s report with nearly a million combined low-propensity environmental voters. Georgia’s law has already taken effect, and Texas’s is pending in the state legislature.

The Department of Justice, along with numerous other plaintiffs, is challenging Georgia’s new law under the Voting Rights Act. Increasing the number of roadblocks to voting only makes it less likely that the voters Stinnett is trying to mobilize will make it to the polls on election day.

Not only that, but an outsized proportion of the voters the Environmental Voter Project report identified in their modelling occupy the demographics that some have claimed the new voter laws intend to silence.

The Environmental Voter Project’s stated goal is “identifying inactive environmentalists and then turning them into consistent activists and voters.” But now that the Supreme Court has upheld increased voting restrictions in Arizona, one of the states that went for Biden and that the Environmental Voter Project cites as promising in its report, the potential of these voters in swing states that are enacting new voting laws may be in jeopardy.

Stinnett presses on. The Environmental Voter Project announced earlier this year that it was expanding its voter outreach programs into five new states, including Texas, Alaska, Kansas, Iowa and New York. With those additions, the project now operates in 17 states, Stinnett said, to find the low-propensity environmental voters and get them to the polls.