Local and Green with Russ Vernon-Jones: Voting rights are a climate and race issue

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Voting rights have been a racial justice issue in the United States for a very long time. Now voting rights are also a climate issue. In fact, the whole world is probably facing irreversible climate catastrophe if we don’t protect voting rights in the U.S.

Why? Because the Republican Party, which opposes any significant climate action, is seeking to take power permanently by suppressing the voting rights of people likely to support the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party hasn’t been bold enough on climate yet, but they are moving in the right direction, while the Republicans vigorously oppose bold moves to address on the climate crisis.

Only with the Democrats holding power do we have any chance of the U.S. taking the many steps that are needed to address the climate emergency. The U.S. is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases and has a tremendous impact on the world’s efforts to stabilize the climate. Without the U.S. fully engaged in climate action, the world probably can’t succeed in solving the climate crisis.

When the Republicans lost the 2020 presidential election by 7 million votes, they didn’t repudiate their candidate. They didn’t announce special efforts to win over new voters. Instead, they went immediately to seeking to reduce the number of likely Democratic voters who will be able to vote in future elections.

In particular, they are seeking to reduce the number of Black voters — a blatant exercise of racism. They have given up attempting to be a majority party and are going all out to rule while only representing a minority of the population.

As of the end of March, Republican state legislators had introduced 361 bills to restrict voting in almost every state. Seven restrictive bills have already been signed into law; over 50 more bills are moving through their respective legislatures. These bills seek to make it harder to register and to vote. They promote purging voters from the rolls and undermine the power of local election officials who stood up to political pressure to falsify results in the recent election. The bills reduce access to mail-in ballots and to early voting. Georgia has even made it illegal to give snacks or water to voters waiting in line to vote.

While the Biden-Harris ticket won the national popular vote by more than 7 million votes, because of the problematic oddities of the Electoral College system, a shift of a total of just 45,000 votes in three states that Biden won by narrow margins, would have been enough to give the election to Donald Trump. Even a modest increase in voter suppression can easily shift outcomes to the Republicans and completely undermine democracy. In 23 states the Republicans now hold the governorship and majorities in both houses of the state legislature — enabling them to pass voter suppression measures, and also gerrymander election districts.

False claims of fraud

For several election cycles the Republicans have been claiming that voter fraud is common and the voting “reforms” that they are advocating are necessary to ensure secure, valid elections. Over the last several decades every study of possible voter fraud has found that it almost never happens.

Many months before the 2020 election Donald Trump started proclaiming that the election was rigged, that mail-in ballots would create huge fraud, and that the only way he could lose would be if the election was stolen through fraudulent means. He continued with “The Big Lie” — claiming that he had actually won the election.

He was so successful with this lie that 147 members of Congress voted not to certify at least some of the Electoral College results, and five months after the election, 60% of Republicans still believe that Trump actually won the election. This, after election officials of both parties and security experts have declared that this election was one of the most secure in history, and zero evidence of fraud has been brought forward. It is dangerous to have so many people believing that President Biden didn’t win the election.

For the People Act

Because of the power that Republicans hold at the state level, stopping voter suppression will almost certainly depend on whether action can be taken at the federal level. The House of Representatives has already passed the “For the People Act” to expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws to reduce the influence of money in politics, limit partisan gerrymandering, and create new ethics rules for federal officeholders.

This bill would require all states to provide automatic and same-day voter registration, early voting, and mail-in voting. It would make Election Day a federal holiday.

This bill is now in the Senate where a Republican filibuster can keep it from coming to a vote. It would take 60 votes to end a filibuster and allow the bill to be voted on. The Democrats currently only have 50 votes. Opinions have differed for years about whether or not the filibuster should be reformed or abolished. In the current situation we must change the filibuster rules in order to stop massive voter suppression and preserve democracy. It’s not clear that the Democrats have the votes to change the filibuster rules, but they are close.

I think it is time for a huge outpouring of support for this bill, whatever it takes to get it passed. This may be the bill on which all progress on climate and racial justice for at least the next few decades depends. Even the senators who are reliable supporters can be more highly motivated to find a way to end voter suppression by an avalanche of letters and phone calls. We can’t have climate, racial or economic justice without insuring voting rights for all. Let’s each do our part.

Russ Vernon-Jones is a member of the Steering Committee of Climate Action Now, and leads CAN’s Racial Justice/Climate Justice Workgroup. He is a co-facilitator of the local Coming Together anti-racism project and a member of the town of Amherst Community Safety Workgroup. Darcy DuMont, who regularly pens this column, will return next month.