Democracy and Climate: More Connected Than We Think

By Sophie Donnellan

It is near impossible to avoid the climate crisis in our daily lives. Phrases like “the world is going to end” and “climate apocalypse” get tossed around on social media, in the news, and even in everyday conversation with friends and family. As a young person, being surrounded by this rhetoric can lead to feelings of climate anxiety and uncertainty toward my future. I simply cannot imagine what my life will look like in 20 or 30 years when our world may surpass projected tipping points of climate disaster.

Too many of my friends have told me they also feel helpless toward such a large problem. This leads me to think about what meaningful action I can take to fight for our future. One way in which I am empowered to make a difference is through voting. As a new voter, climate change is a large priority for me in local and state elections, and I am not alone. In fact, climate is increasingly becoming a top issue for young voters across the nation.

But what happens when democracy disappears? In many U.S. states, the right to vote is becoming less and less accessible, thanks to a recent surge of voter ID requirements and limits on mail-in ballots. Even worse, these anti-voting laws often disproportionately target communities of color – the same communities that systemically experience extreme heat and less livable conditions in America’s cities.

In the 2021-2022 legislative session across 26 states, the Climate Cabinet National Bill List found that 30 state-level bills introduced and recognized by lawmakers restricted ballots and voter access. This includes states like Arizona, Wisconsin, and Michigan – three so-called “battleground” states for state and federal elections. Let’s take a deeper dive into some of the recent legislation that was introduced in these three states.

Arizona

Following the 2020 presidential election which saw Democrats win statewide for the first time since 1992, the Arizona Legislature introduced several bills to curtail voting rights in the state. 

To begin, Senate Bill 1003 (passed in 2021) requires election officials to resolve mail ballots with missing signatures – otherwise known as “ballot curing” – by Election Day, discarding the previous five day post-Election Day period. Other legislation that undermined long-standing Arizona election law included Senate Bill 1485, which removed the “Permanent” part of Arizona’s Permanent Early Voting List (PEVL) – a policy that an upwards of 80% Arizonans use. 

Additionally, Senate Bill 1241 requires ballots with mismatched signatures to be sent to the Office of the Attorney General for potential investigation, another attempt at voter suppression, and Senate Bill 1713 requires voters submitting early ballots to include an additional form of identification, making early voting harder to access. These are only a handful of the many bills that recently made their way through the Arizona legislature, signifying a democracy crisis in the state.

Wisconsin

 

Wisconsin also recently faced a series of disenfranchising legislation following the 2020 presidential election. 

 

Policy like Assembly Bill 173 would have created barriers for grants that primarily focus on voter turnout in urban communities. Legislation like Senate Bill 203, would have limited absentee voting access, and Senate Bill 212, would have restricted county clerks from fixing defective absentee ballot certificates – effectively increasing the number of rejected ballots. 

 

Absentee voting removes obstacles to voting such as lack of transportation and work or family responsibilities, making it a vital component of democracy. Had it not been for Governor Tony Evers’s veto (or threat of), these anti-voting bills would have become law – a clear sign of the Wisconsin Legislature’s anti-democracy priorities. 

Michigan

 

Finally, several anti-voting bills were introduced in the Michigan Legislature following the 2020 presidential election, before Democrats won chamber control in Michigan. 

 

Many of these bills were passed by their respective chambers, but then were vetoed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. This includes House Bill 4127, which would have required thousands of voters to re-verify their identity in order to remain on the qualified voter file and Senate Bill 303, which would have required voters to submit identification with absentee ballot applications while removing the option for voting by signed affidavit, thereby eliminating options for election day voting. 

 

Again, like Wisconsin, Governor Whitmer’s vetoes kept these bills from becoming law, but they are a clear example of how out of touch some State Legislatures are with young voters’ priorities. 


Climate Implications

 

How do anti-democratic laws impact the fight against climate change?  Disenfranchising voters diminishes overall turnout for elections up-and-down the ticket. Climate action is overwhelmingly popular among Americans, even more so than we may realize, so restrictions on the right to vote limit opportunities for civic engagement to advance the fight against climate change. In order to fight for a livable future, our nation’s voting laws must remain free and fair.

 

Now is the time to take action. 2023 is on track to be the hottest year on record globally.  Arizona specifically is experiencing unprecedented heat waves. In midwestern states like Michigan and Wisconsin, poor air quality has become the new normal this summer, as a result of climate change-induced wildfires. But with many new barriers to voting and threats of disenfranchisement, it becomes harder for those experiencing the effects of climate change in these states to express their concerns through voting.

 

Every U.S. citizen can start by taking simple steps to combat disenfranchisement. First, learn about your state legislators: who they are and how they vote. You can reach out to your state representatives to let them know how important the issues of climate change and democracy are to you. Finally, show up to Election Day prepared. Research any changes to voting requirements your state may have recently undergone, and prepare accordingly to ensure you have eligibility to vote in your state election.

 

Together, we have the power to make a difference. If more of us participate in our local and state elections, we can protect both our democracy and our planet.