Voting Is Now a Public Health Issue
Georgia's mid-June primary was the latest example of pandemic-induced voter suppression. Long lines at polling stations stretched for blocks and blocks as socially distanced voters waited for several hours to vote in person. In Fulton County, which includes Atlanta and is the state's most populated county, some voters waited past midnight to cast their ballot.
Scenes like the one in Georgia—and Wisconsin before that—have ignited a national conversation about voting by mail. In response, President Trump has claimed that voting by mail "will lead to massive fraud" and favor the Democratic Party. Notably, Twitter even placed a fact-checking warning on one of Trump's tweets about voting by mail, breaking with its previous practice of not calling out Trump's falsehoods.
Vote by mail does not favor one party over another, a 2020 study from Stanford University found. Additionally, a recent survey by Pew Research Center showed that 70% of Americans favor allowing people to vote by mail. Even when broken down by political party, 87% of Democrats and 49% of Republicans favor expanding mail-in voting.
"Undermining voter confidence in the system is a form of voter suppression," said Raúl Macías, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "Millions of Americans have voted by mail safely and securely for decades."
The Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, has recommended states provide a universal vote-by-mail option to hold fair elections during the pandemic.
As of May 2020, 29 states and Washington, D.C., have "no excuse" absentee voting, and five other states conduct elections entirely by mail with limited in-person voting options. However, 16 states still require voters to provide an "excuse" to receive an absentee ballot. While most of the "excuse-required" voting states have ruled the novel coronavirus outbreak is a valid reason to receive an absentee ballot, four of them—Tennessee, Missouri, Mississippi, and Texas—have not made the necessary changes to allow absentee voting widely available during the pandemic.
In Texas, the state Supreme Court went as far as to block a ruling that would allow Texans to use the pandemic as a reason to vote by mail. As it stands, Texas will only send absentee ballots to voters who are 65 years or older, disabled, out of the county during the election period, or confined to jail.
According to MOVE Texas, a nonprofit organization focused on civic engagement for youth in Texas, the ruling is anti-voter and could lead to voter suppression by forcing residents to choose between their health and voting. But, seeing anti-voter decisions from the state government is not a surprise to the MOVE team.
"In the past, we've seen elections as a statewide issue," said Raven Douglas, political director of MOVE Texas. "But, after the 2019 legislative session where we were able to defeat […] a really bad anti-voter bill, we came together with a number of ally organizations and decided we could no longer rely on our state government to pass pro-democracy reform."
So, in addition to starting a petition to voice the organization's disappointment in the Texas Supreme Court ruling against mail-in voting, MOVE Texas is turning to local officials to help voters in other ways. Douglas noted that county officials can greenlight curbside voting options, extend clerk's office hours, provide extra drop boxes, and more.
"You don't have to wait on your governor or your secretary of state to pass guidance, you can do that directly with your elections administrator and your county clerks," Douglas said.
Macías also acknowledges the need for in-person voting expansion during the upcoming elections.
"We think it's really important that every voter has the opportunity to vote by mail this election, but also in-person voting has to be maintained," Macías said. That means modifying polling places to fit social distancing guidelines, expanded early voting, making voter registration easier online or by mail, and investing in education programs about how this election might be different from what voters are used to.
Additionally, Macías notes that for most states to scale up their vote by mail systems to handle a much higher volume of ballots, they will need new equipment, such as ballot sorters, signature-verification software, optical scanning devices, and enough printers to handle the expected increase of applications and ballots.
"We really want to see Congress send more money to help elections officials conduct their elections," Macías said. "This is really the time when the federal government needs to step up. It's too important."
In Michigan, Voters Not Politicians, a pro-democracy organization, is advocating for an even more radical solution: skipping the application process and just sending absentee ballots to all voters, with postage-paid return envelopes, for the November election, through a campaign called VoteSafe.
"We're running out of time," Nancy Wang, Voters Not Politicians' editorial director, said. "Our campaign started seven weeks ago and with every day it's becoming harder and harder."
VoteSafe is asking state officials to take other measures to fight voter disenfranchisement, such as supplying secure ballot drop boxes and accessible polling locations that follow protocols for sanitization and social distancing, increasing funding for ballot security and tracking, and expanding access to local clerks' offices leading up to Election Day.
"We wouldn't be blazing trails here, we would really be following best practices," Wang said, citing the expert advice the organization received from the former elections director for Denver. Colorado is seen as a leader in election integrity and pro-voter policies.
One of those best practices is running a culturally competent education campaign, meaning that Wang and her team must be sensitive to different communities' history with voting and cater to that. For example, Wang says, some people don't trust the U.S. Postal Service, so there must be enough drop boxes for physical ballots and in-person polling sites for voters who may be deterred by having to send their ballot through the mail.
"You need to make sure you're creating a system that doesn't disenfranchise voters for other reasons," Wang said. To do this, Voters Not Politicians has partnered with community groups across Michigan to make sure the messaging and education surrounding the election is sensitive and resonates with the state's communities.
"This issue is really a concern for organizations that work not just in voting rights spaces," Wang said. "There is a lot of really great work being done by other groups in the state."
Partnerships with organizations that don't strictly deal with voting rights can also help show that voting by mail is not a partisan issue, Wang says. A majority of Michigan voters are supportive of expanding voting options—67% of voters approved a 2018 proposal to expand voting by mail.
"We should be trying to make it easier to vote for everyone, particularly in this election cycle," Macías said. "We shouldn't be asking voters to choose between their health and their vote."
That same sentiment is what prompted the nonpartisan organization Democracy North Carolina to join several other voting and elections organizations in a lawsuit demanding that the state take "necessary steps to guarantee a fair, safe election in November."
"The decision to sue came down to the fact that our general assembly has a history of either inaction on voting rights issues, or outright hostility to voting rights," said Tomas Lopez, the group's executive director.
What's needed, according Democracy North Carolina's suit, is a relaxation of voter registration requirements, making in-person voting safer and ballot drop boxes available, and easing the process of absentee voting. While North Carolina is a no-excuse absentee voting state—meaning anyone can apply to receive an absentee ballot in the mail—absentee voters must get the signatures of two witnesses or a notary for their absentee ballot to be counted.
According to Lopez, 4% of North Carolina voters voted by mail in 2016, but the state board of elections predicts 30% to 40% of voters will vote by mail this year. Lopez fears that with social distancing orders, absentee voters won't be able to acquire two witnesses, or a notary, and will either not submit their ballot, or submit it and have the ballot rejected.
"All the stuff that we're doing is about trying to make sure that our election rules are responsive to the reality that people are having to live in," he said.
"One of the really concerning parts of this is that, absent the kind of changes we are putting forward, voting access for Black and brown North Carolinians is going to take a double hit, from COVID and all the ways which it's hitting communities, and from all the ways the election rules are failing to respond," Lopez said.
"The election is already different, the question is whether the rules are going to respond to it or not," Lopez said. "All of these COVID response issues are rooted in things we'd like to see in November."
Reposted with permission from Yes! Magazine.
ISABELLA GARCIA is a former solutions journalism intern for YES!.
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After decades on the political periphery, the climate movement is entering the mainstream in 2020, with young leaders at the fore. The Sunrise Movement now includes more than 400 local groups educating and advocating for political action on climate change. Countless students around the world have clearly communicated what's at stake for their futures, notably Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who just finished her yearlong school strike for climate. Youth activists have been praised for their flexible, big-picture thinking and ability to harness social media to deliver political wins, as Sunrise recently did for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey's primary campaign. They necessarily challenge the status quo.
A Convergence of Issues<p>The unequal impacts of a changing climate have become extremely clear in 2020, so equity has come to the fore of climate conversations in every corner of the country. A global deadly pandemic continues to rage out of control in the U.S., heat waves are setting new temperature records, wildfires are scorching American Western states, and the hurricane season has already made it to the end of the alphabet for naming storms. In all cases, low-income, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are bearing a disproportionate amount of the impacts.</p><p>"Today, the scab is off, the ugly reality of injustice is hitting us up close and personal, made more realistic by this COVID pandemic," Bullard says.</p><p>This year the decidedly youthful focus on intersectionality is a big part of what defines the transformation of the climate movement. Climate is not just an environmental issue, according to youth activists. It's also a racial justice issue, an economic issue, and an access-to-health care issue.</p><p>"Environmental justice is really seeing the intersection of these issues," says Alex Rodriguez, a community organizer with the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, which aims to make environmental issues a priority for the state's elected leaders. The group is now focusing their efforts on the coming election and recently succeeded in persuading the state to allow absentee voting in November. "We want people to be safe when casting their vote," says Rodriguez, 26, whose fellow grassroots committee members range from age 16 to 60.</p><p>Rodriguez, who also serves on the equity and environmental justice working group for the Governor's Council on Climate Change, says, "We see our programmatic work as a way to help lawmakers see what they can do to improve the dignity of those suffering from environmental racism, systematic racism, and economic oppression."</p><p>Seeing the overlap and bringing these issues together is a strength that Bullard says was missing from the civil rights organizing he was involved with in the 1960s. He says 2020 is unique in many ways.</p><p>"The number of marchers is unprecedented, from different economic, ethnic, and racial groups—an awakening unlike any that I've seen on this Earth in over 70 years," Bullard says. "Today, the different movements are converging, and I think that convergence makes for greater potential for success."</p>
Young and Old<p>But young people are one essential demographic among many when it comes to climate action. With all that's on the line for climate in the coming elections, up and down the ballot, collaboration becomes key. Bullard says previous generations of climate activists can now play the critical role of mentoring, assisting, and supporting. Standing with, not in front of, youth.</p><p>"Youth are leading us and taking on frontline activity," says Jayce Chiblow, the community engagement lead for Indigenous Climate Action, a Canadian organization that works for Indigenous-led climate justice solutions. But in doing so, she says many young Indigenous activists are experiencing the trauma of violence, getting arrested, and being taken away from their land. "All of our older people are supporting those youth: Elders, mentors, people trained in nonviolent action," Chiblow says. "The youth aren't alone."</p><p>That support can go a long way. "There's a lot of anger and a lot of fear, and that's understandable," says Wazer of Sunrise Connecticut. "I definitely feel those things, too, just considering the ways that our future has been threatened and kind of trashed by older generations."</p><p>Under the Trump administration, the number of environmental rollbacks alone can be disheartening, not to mention new <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/video/arctic-national-wildlife-refuge/" target="_blank">drilling permits in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge going up for auction</a>.</p><p>Wazer is frank about the risks of burnout, depression, and anxiety from the stress of it all, but draws inspiration from the example of the late U.S. representative and lifelong civil rights activist John Lewis. "That forgiveness and that ability to keep fighting and stay motivated … I think that that is something really powerful to learn from older generations."</p><p>An intergenerational approach can leverage the individual strengths of youth and older people in all their diversity.</p><p>"The elders hold our stories," says Chiblow, who is Anishinaabe from Garden River First Nation, Ontario. Those stories include lived experiences, culture, history, and generations of adapting to changes in climate. Such collective experience continues to inform Indigenous knowledge and connections to the land, as well as how people manage and govern themselves in relation to it. This knowledge is passed on through relationship-building and storytelling.</p><p>"Every time you hear that story, you're at a different point in your life, and you'll pick up something else … something new," Chiblow says.</p><p>Changes in perspectives that come with time and experience are among the reasons why intergenerational learning and coalitions are critical to the climate movement. To combine that living and learning is to expand the reach and meaning of the message exponentially. As part of her research for her master's degree, Chiblow brought together youth, community leaders, and knowledge keepers in her community to workshop climate action. "Those relationships are vital to keep that movement going," Chiblow says.</p>
The Unique Value Proposition of Elders<p>Older activists bring unique strengths to the table, according to gerontologist Mick Smyer, who designs strategies to move people from anxiety to action on climate. He calls himself "the aging whisperer to climate groups" and "the climate whisperer to aging groups." He is quick to point out that the learning can go in both directions.</p><p>"I think older adults are untapped resources," Smyer says. "Older adults bring several resources, one of which is their circles of influence. Just by virtue of having lived longer, older adults are going to have denser and richer networks," Smyer says. "The second is, when it comes to voting and civic engagement, older adults, as an age group, outperform all other age groups."</p><p>He uses the 2016 presidential election to illustrate his point: "The older age groups, 70% of them voted. Nobody [else] came close." He is cautious about making sweeping statements about older people broadly, but he says that ageism is alive and well. And that can deter the kind of collaboration that would beget necessary progress on climate action.</p><p>As the twin global patterns of an aging population and a changing climate continue arm in arm, Smyer says a good place for starting this work is within one's family.</p><p>"We each have that power to use in our circles of influence, particularly in our families, and we don't realize it," Smyer says. Whether it's via Zoom or FaceTime or a phone call or a chat in the living room, Smyer says, family members have a superpower: They will listen to each other, and they'll at least start the conversation.</p><p> "Intergenerational collaboration around climate issues, particularly in this election season, starts at home, and then goes to the polling booth," he says.</p>
Speaking the Same Language<p>As an individual's network of family, friends, and connections becomes wider and more diverse, the more work will need to be done to have them all working toward the same goals. That is equally true for the climate movement at large.</p><p>In bridging the gaps among baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials, Bullard says, "Each generation will have some idiosyncrasy and uniqueness about it that another generation will not understand or comprehend."</p><p>If everybody in a group or institution is similar, then there's no need to explain a lot, Bullard says. There's usually a fair amount of shared knowledge and values. But the more diverse that group gets, in age, race, gender, or culture, he says, the greater the potential for making mistakes, stepping on people's culture, and causing pain. But the potential for learning also increases exponentially.</p><p>Chiblow says successful collaboration comes down to being able to speak in shared concepts. The term "justice," for example, is an English word that's hard to translate into the Anishinaabe language. Chiblow says that because her community sees itself as belonging to the land, and being part of the land, the Anishinaabe worldview, and therefore their understanding of justice, is necessarily more holistic than the mainstream.</p><p>"Indigenous people have been feeling [the effects of climate change] for so long," Chiblow says. Today, as wildfires rage across the West, the mantra of "I can't breathe" is being driven home on a grand scale. For better and worse, climate justice is finally a front-page story.</p><p>"It's affecting the broader society," Chiblow says. "We're finally at the turning point where we could start to make real change because … people are really starting to feel that urgency."</p><p>The urgency will be tantamount in the coming election. A lot is at stake, says Chiblow: "Incentives, funding, all-around agreement, and also the way we're able to manage our lands and ourselves as people."</p><p>Bullard, too, is insistent on urgency. "This election is one of the most important elections of a generation, because there's so many things at stake," he says. "We can't wait another 40 years on climate. We don't have that much time. We don't have 40 years to get justice."</p><p>Issues of climate justice will be on the ballot in state and local elections this fall, such as Nevada's proposed renewable energy standards and Louisiana's proposed disaster funding. And the topic has finally made it onto the national stage. Joe Biden called Trump a "climate arsonist" for not acting on or even admitting that the wildfires in California are clearly climate-related. The frequency and intensity of such disasters is indisputable.</p><p>"Hurricanes don't swerve to avoid red states or blue states. Wildfires don't skip towns that voted a certain way," Biden <a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/biden-address-west-coast-fires-confront-growing-threat/story?id=73000218" target="_blank">said in a speech on Sept. 14</a>. "The impacts of climate change don't pick and choose. That's because it's not a partisan phenomenon."</p><p>In many ways, the results of the upcoming elections will reflect the ways youth activists and older activists are able come to a common understanding of what climate justice means and what they want the future world to look like. </p><p>"There's a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there's a lot of energy that's stored in young people," Bullard says. "When you put those two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success."</p>
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Simon Montlake
For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.
All that was before this month's deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. "It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change," she says.
Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.</p><p>The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval. </p><p>Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts. </p><p>Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers. </p><p>Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison. </p><p>Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. </p>
Stepping on the Gas<p>In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove's developer, Canada's Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide "reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world."</p><p>As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.</p><p>But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. "They are putting infrastructure in a state where there's no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas," she says. </p><p>Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it's only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions. </p>
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