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Sierra Club President: 'To Protect Our Environment and Our Communities, We Must Protect Our Democracy'
People might wonder why a public health professional from upstate New York traveled to Roanoke, Virginia this week.
While I do spend my days disease-mapping for the New York State Department of Health, I also volunteer as the national president for the Sierra Club, the nation’s oldest and largest environmental grassroots organization; and also the NAACP, the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots civil rights organization. I went to Roanoke with the Sierra Club and allies from civil rights and other organizations to support a June 25 rally for voting rights marking the second anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA).
Since it was passed nearly 50 years ago, the VRA empowered Americans to participate in democratic elections. It ended literacy tests, poll taxes and other tactics designed to keep people of color away from the ballot box. In the 21st century, it protected against new—but no less pernicious—methods of voting discrimination like inequitable redistricting plans, restrictive voter ID laws, elimination of early voting and unfair polling place changes. By protecting voters from these intentionally restrictive laws, the VRA has provided more opportunities for people to participate and have their voices heard in our democracy.
In the two years since the Shelby decision gutted key protections of the VRA, voter discrimination has increased across our nation as voter ID laws, registration restrictions and other discriminatory practices have become increasingly prevalent. Before the Shelby decision, the Justice Department was required to review any proposed changes to voting laws in Virginia to ensure they weren't discriminatory. This stripped places like Roanoke, the largest city in southwestern Virginia, with a diverse population that is about one-third African American, of its safety net protecting minority voters.
Voter ID laws have cropped up from state to state, creating additional barriers to the ballot box. These laws did not happen by accident. Big polluters have supported shadowy organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, which are pushing state laws that further suppress the vote across the country in a cynical attempt at gaming our electoral system.
Efforts to reduce access to the ballot box are attacks on the very principle of equality. Adding insult to injury, many of the communities experiencing voter suppression and racial discrimination are the same ones facing the worst environmental injustices. Fossil fuel companies exploit communities of color by building dirty energy projects in their backyards and turn a blind eye to clean air and water violations near our neighborhoods and schools. One of the main tools for communities to fight back to protect their kids and communities from these fossil fuels corporations is the right to vote and ensure their concerns are represented by their elected officials. As big polluters are dumping toxic chemicals into neighborhoods, instead of taking accountability to clean up their messes, they are investing money to silence the voices of the people directly impacted.
For our democracy to function, and for our decision-makers to pass the laws that help people instead of hurt us, all voices must be heard, not just the voices of a handful of wealthy corporate elites. In other words, to protect our environment and our communities, we must protect our democracy.
That’s why I joined a broad coalition of more than 500 people in Roanoke demanding action on voting rights and a democracy that works for all of us. Members of Congress have an opportunity to modernize the Voting Rights Act so it does what it’s intended to do—protect the votes and voices of all Americans. This is not a partisan issue. It wasn’t when the VRA was almost unanimously reauthorized in 2006—and it isn’t now.
This rally is just one step in the journey to build the country we want and need. While we wait for our Congressional leaders to do their jobs, the Sierra Club is joining with our allies across many movements to raise up the voices of our neighbors, coworkers and our families demanding action from our city and state leaders as well. For change must come at all levels.
This August will mark the 50th anniversary of the VRA. When we commemorate and celebrate this anniversary later this summer, we should be cheering for firm action toward a fully-functioning Voting Rights Act so we can celebrate for anniversaries to come.
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