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Environmental groups are throwing their weight behind voting rights in Michigan

Environmental justice issues are pushing green groups to embrace a new strategy this election season.

Flint River on March 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan.  CREDIT: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
Flint River on March 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. CREDIT: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

When the Sierra Club of Michigan issued their 2018 election endorsements, they chose to extend their support beyond candidates with strong environmental records and green ballot initiatives. In a move that might surprise some, the organization also backed two proposals with seemingly no immediate relevance to environmental issues: one on redistricting and one geared towards voting rights.

Proposal 2, an initiated constitutional amendment, would transfer the power to draw Michigan’s congressional and state legislative districts from the state legislature over to a 13-member bipartisan independent redistricting commission composed of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, along with a number of unaffiliated members.

The connection between bipartisan redistricting and environmental activism isn’t immediately apparent to many voters, but green groups are flocking to support Proposal 2.

“Wanting clean water, air, and a sustainable future are common-sense, popular ideas that we expect to see movement on, yet we don’t,” said Katie Fahey, founder and executive director of Voters Not Politicians, or Proposal 2. “I believe one of the reasons why is because our political system isn’t focused on delivering results for voters — it is focused on delivering results for special interests and lobbyists.”

In an email to ThinkProgress, Fahey fleshed out why Proposal 2 has attracted attention from green groups.

“As someone who previously worked in the sustainability and recycling industry, I know that many of the goals and priorities of the environmental community are being ignored or pushed to the side because the current system is rigged in favor of special interests,” said Fahey.

In addition the Sierra Club of Michigan, Proposal 2 has received support from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and the Michigan Environmental Council, along with a number of other local environmental organizations. It’s also not the only ballot initiative getting attention in the state.

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Green organizations have also endorsed Proposal 3, which targets voting rights. Why? “Because environmentalists understand that reducing barriers to voting is crucial to ensuring that our state’s environmental policies reflect the will of voters and not special interests who bank on suppressing votes to move their agenda,” Todd Cook, director of the Promote the Vote campaign, told ThinkProgress.

Like Proposal 2, Proposal 3 appears on Michigan’s ballot this election year as a constitutional amendment. The ballot initiative would add eight voting policies to Michigan’s constitution, allowing for same-day voter registration, straight-ticket voting, automatic voter registration, and allowing all citizens to cast absentee ballots, among other reforms. Michigan residents have argued for years that the state’s restrictive voting laws disadvantage many voters, including students, people of color, and low-income communities.

Mike Berkowitz, the legislative and political director for Michigan‘s Sierra Club chapter, told ThinkProgress in September that support for redistricting and voting rights efforts is critical to any long-term green efforts in the state. Many areas where voter turnout is low, Berkowitz noted, are also heavily polluted or suffering from water contamination. 

From an environmental justice perspective, those two proposals are very important to us,” he said. 

Voting won’t necessarily fix the problems plaguing areas like Southwest Detroit, home to Michigan’s most polluted zip code, or restore trust in the city of Flint, where residents still fear their water. But the momentum Proposals 2 and 3 have seen in Michigan are an indicator of a growing acknowledgement that if environmental efforts don’t look at the bigger picture facing vulnerable communities, they’ll ultimately lose at the polls.

Elsewhere in the country, this reality is also looming. On the West Coast, Washington voters will decide next week whether or not to embrace a historic carbon fee. Numerous efforts to pass such a fee have failed before, but this time around supporters are hopeful, largely because of the diverse coalition supporting the effort, also known as I-1631.

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Nick Abraham, communications director for Yes on 1631, told ThinkProgress that the coalition is being supported by labor, social justice groups, doctors, scientists, and other activists across a broad spectrum. From the beginning, these key players helped to craft I-1631, ultimately creating an initiative they felt comfortable touting in their communities.

“Communities of color are the [backbone of the I-1631] campaign,” Aiko Schaefer, the director of the environmental justice coalition Front and Centered, told ThinkProgress this month. “From our perspective this is how it should be done.”

But far from both Washington and Michigan, other climate efforts are still falling into old conundrums.

In Austin, Texas, an effort to overhaul the city’s decades-old land development code has met with backlash from some green groups. While climate experts and activists largely agree the city needs to develop more compactly, many advocates say a planned re-write of the city’s development code failed to account for the issue of gentrification. With Black and Latinx Austinites largely suffering displacement amid mass-development, environmental justice advocates have said such an oversight is unacceptable.

As a result, many are supporting a controversial ballot initiative, Proposition J, which would impose a public vote and mandatory waiting period on future changes to the land development code. That would likely hinder the city’s efforts to fight climate change — but activists fighting gentrification, another blow to the environment, feel the initiative is their only hope.

Advocates in Austin told ThinkProgress the debate could have been largely avoided if vulnerable communities had been involved in the development conversation from the beginning — the approach carbon fee proponents have taken in Washington.

In Michigan, where green groups are placing their bets on enfranchising voters and redistricting reform, advocates on the receiving end of their support say such strategies are crucial.

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“Decisions made in our state legislatures have a tremendous impact on our environment, and that is even more of a concern at the U.S. Congressional level,” said Fahey, of Proposal 2 efforts. “No one is going to fix the broken system for us, so it’s extremely important that we each make sure people understand that systemic flaws like gerrymandering are why our political system is rigged.”

With ultimate outcomes still uncertain, the week before voting held good news for environmentalists: last-minute polls found Washington’s carbon fee maintaining support, while Michigan voters appear to be favoring both green-endorsed ballot initiatives — by double digits.