Climate change activists look to increase voter turnout in 2022 and beyond

·Senior Editor
·12 min read

When engineering geologist Betsy Mathieson, 66, thought about her retirement, she imagined putting her scientific expertise to use by volunteering for an environmentalist organization like the Sierra Club. But when the U.S. elected climate change denier Donald Trump president in 2016, she decided to retire early to volunteer on increasing voter turnout.

“I came to realize that if people who care about the planet don’t vote, my environmental volunteering would be of little use," Mathieson, of Alameda, Calif., told Yahoo News. So instead of volunteering for a traditional environmental advocacy organization, she now spends several hours a week phone banking on behalf of the Environmental Voter Project (EVP), a nonpartisan nonprofit that focuses on increasing turnout among irregular voters who are likely to care about the environment.

A election worker
A election worker at a polling location in Hermon, Maine. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Founded in 2015 by Boston-based lawyer and activist Nathaniel Stinnett, EVP has just five staffers and a singular mission: to identify registered voters who don’t always vote and — based on demographic and consumer data — would be likely to name the environment or climate change as their No. 1 issue, and to get them to vote.

Stinnett was inspired by polling that showed a larger proportion of Americans rate climate change or the environment as their top issue than the percentage of likely voters who choose climate as their main priority — a tendency replicated in EVP’s own polling.

“I started to think, ‘I wonder if the environmental movement doesn’t have a persuasion problem, as much as we have a turnout problem,’” Stinnett told Yahoo News.

That may seem counterintuitive, given the environment’s reputation as a hobbyhorse of latte-sipping liberal white elites. But that stereotype may simply be outdated. Environmental degradation, especially from climate change, tends to harm lower-income Americans and communities of color the most. Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans are more likely to say climate change is important, according to opinion polls. And concern about climate change is strongly correlated with simply being younger.

A view of the damage wrought by Hurricane Ida in Louisiana
A view of the damage wrought by Hurricane Ida in Louisiana, Sept. 3, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/AFP via Getty Images)

Polls routinely show that relatively few Americans identify climate change or the environment as the most important problem facing the nation: it ranged from 4 percent last September to 2 percent in December, according to a Gallup tracking poll. However, some surveys have detected more concern, especially among the younger people who will contend with worsening trends such as extreme heat waves and rising seas. In a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll of American adults conducted in September 2020, for example, 11 percent chose climate change as the most important issue to them, trailing only the coronavirus and the economy. The percentages were higher among Latinos (13 percent), households making less than $50,000 per year (15 percent) and people younger than 30 years old (16 percent).

Yet all of those groups: younger people, less affluent people and Latinos (and Asian Americans, who are also more likely than overall voters to consider themselves environmentalists — tend to vote less often than the public as a whole.

According to a new data analysis from EVP, environmental voters with a history of voting in presidential years — but skipping midterm elections — far outnumber the winning candidate’s average margin of victory in the 2018 U.S. Senate election in five of the eight states they studied: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, and North Carolina.

The report’s claim that mobilizing these voters “could easily swing 2022 midterm elections,” might trigger eye rolls from campaign veterans. For decades, mobilizing constituencies such as younger voters and voters of color has been the long-sought and never-found Holy Grail of progressive activists.

Early voters
Early voters line up outside a polling place in Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 6, 2020. (Ty Wright/Getty Images)

Stinnett concedes that a targeted mobilization of environmental voters isn’t necessarily going to determine the outcome of any individual races. Instead, he argues that a long-term investment in boosting turnout among climate voters will pay dividends in the form of heightened attention to the issue from elected officials.

“I’m not claiming the Environmental Voter Project is going to swing the results by targeting environmentalist drop-off voters,” he said. “But we think it’s important to release this report because we thought it’s important to be clear about a few things: There are almost 1 million climate voters who voted in 2020, but never in a midterm. These are the voters who will determine if the environmental movement is a big or little player in 2022. But you’re not just going to send one text in October and get them to vote. You need to start mobilizing them now, in the spring primaries, in runoffs and then in the midterms.”

And then, he added, you can’t disappear from their lives only to reappear in 2024. The goal, he said, is to “turn voting into a habit.” And to do that, he said, “you don't just leave town on Nov. 8.”

In order to change that, EVP has built a network of 6,000 volunteers who text, call, door-knock and send postcards to infrequent voters in 17 states and encourage them to vote. And that’s all they do. EVP volunteers say nothing about the environment, or what’s at stake in the election. But though it may seem counterintuitive, they do try to boost turnout in elections that have nothing to do with environmental regulation.

The approach is informed by political science findings about what works at boosting turnout, and what doesn’t. “You can't build a movement of habitual voters by only talking to them once every two years,” Stinnett said. “We were active in almost 400 elections in 17 states in 2021. Some elections had nothing to do with the environment, but had everything to do with developing the habit of voting.”

Poll worker Charise Watson, right, checks voter forms
Poll worker Charise Watson, right, assists voters as they wait in line to cast their ballots on the first day of early voting in the Senate runoffs in Georgia. (Tami Chappell/AFP via Getty Images)

For example, Stinnett said, “after the Georgia Senate runoffs, once those elections were over, everybody left town. We got to work in the Griffin Judicial Circuit district attorney's race.” (A judicial circuit is a coalition of low-population counties that share a legal system, and the Griffin Judicial Circuit special election in Georgia was held in Feb. 2021.) The real, ultimate goal, isn’t to get the 700-800 voters EVP targeted in the rural counties that comprise the Griffin Judicial Circuit to start voting in every election, including crucial statewide races for Senate and governor later this year.

EVP targets voters because they are likely to rank climate or change or the environment as their biggest priority, based on demographics like age and race, and their consumer data, such as subscribing to a nature magazine or driving a hybrid. Merely getting them to vote should, in the aggregate, increase the proportion of voters who care most about climate change. And, Stinnett argues, campaigns are using all the same data and will be aware when the next campaign season rolls around that a growing share of the electorate cares about climate change.

“The last thing we want people to do is to think about their vote as a transaction,” Stinnett explained. “Instead, what we do is talk to voters about who they are and who they want to be. We use a lot of peer pressure. We’ll send you a text message saying the number of people on your block voted in the last election, because human beings are social animals more than rational animals. We get them to promise to vote months before the election, then get in touch days before and remind them, [in order] to use social pressure about keeping their promises. Is that a little harsh? Yeah, but so is the climate crisis.”

Political scientists say EVP is wise to focus on people who have voted before rather than those who aren’t even registered, and to rely on peer pressure rather than arguing that voting will lead to any particular outcome.

Voters in Georgia's primary election
Voters in Georgia's primary election, June 9, 2020. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

“The good news for them is that people who do vote in presidential years and not in midterms are relatively straightforward people to mobilize,” Donald Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University and co-author of the book “Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout,” told Yahoo News.They do have the advantage of thinking of themselves as voters. ... It’s not as though you’re talking to 18-year-old new voters who don’t have voting habits and they’re a little apprehensive about the whole thing.”

While Green cautions that more passive efforts like buying online ads don’t necessarily increase turnout, peer-to-peer mobilization efforts have been consistently shown to have some effect. “To the extent they’re getting something impersonal like ads, or direct mail, maybe that won’t work, but to the extent that there's actually a human being on the other side of the conversation, it most certainly will work,” he said.

“If you tell people, ‘Hey, your neighbors are voting, here’s their voting record, here’s your voting record, we’re going to send an update after the election,’ that kind of social monitoring messaging is very powerful,” Melissa Michelson, a professor of political science at Menlo College and the author of “Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns,” told Yahoo News. “It is also true that getting people to make a commitment to voting and then nudging them to follow through on that commitment is also very powerful at getting people to vote.”

Michelson also endorses EVP’s theory that it will be most effective to boost turnout in congressional elections by mobilizing voters for every election, no matter how small. “Voting is habit-forming,” said Michelson. “You get somebody to vote in an election, then the next election comes around and they’re already more likely to vote because they’re like, ‘Oh it’s election time, it’s time to vote.’ They’ve adopted an identity as a voter.”

People participate in a protest
People demonstrate in support of counting all votes as the election in Pennsylvania drags on, Nov. 3, 2020. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In elections held in the first half of 2021 in which it texted and called potential voters, EVP says it increased turnout from 0.7 to 1.8 percentage points over control groups.

But whether a modest bump in turnout among voters who are likely to care about the environment will lead to elected officials actually taking action on climate change is a different question, to which experts say the answer is unclear.

“The evidence on that is more theoretical than direct,” Green said. “On the other hand, it’s an entirely plausible hypothesis.” Past changes in the electorate have had effects on policy, he noted, including more funds being directed to Black communities after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“I’m skeptical,” said Michelson. “Sure, theoretically that could happen. But there are so many other things that young people, Latino voters, Asian Americans and African Americans care about. It seems like they’re making a big leap in assuming that elected officials would (a) see this little increase in turnout and (b) would thus make the connection to environmental issues.”

There are other groups working on influencing elected officials more directly. In addition to the well-established big environmental players in Washington, D.C., like the League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council, several new groups have sprung up in recent years.

Evergreen Action was founded by former staffers of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019. Although Inslee’s ambitious climate-focused campaign failed, Jared Leopold, a co-founder of Evergreen Action, argues that the 2020 election still demonstrated that having a strong climate agenda is good politics, including for boosting turnout.

Democratic presidential candidate and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee
Democratic presidential candidate and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee campaigns in Des Moines, Iowa, Aug. 10, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“[Biden] ended up running on a large portion of the Inslee plan in the general,” Leopold told Yahoo News. “I think Biden’s team saw climate change was a winning issue, not just for swing voters but also for getting those who voters might have voted for the Green Party in 2016, or who might not have bothered to vote in 2016, but could be motivated by climate in 2020.” A poll released on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center shows U.S. adults prefer the Democratic Party by 22 points over Republicans on climate change, the party’s biggest advantage of any single issue.

The chasm between the two major parties on climate change is vast, but there are also large differences between Democrats on the issue, as evidenced by Sen. Joe Manchin’s throttling of Biden’s climate agenda in Congress. Climate Hawks Vote is a political action committee founded in 2013 to elevate more intensely pro-climate candidates within the Democratic caucus.

“What I try to do is give carrots, rather than sticks, to politicians,” R.L. Miller, the group’s founder, told Yahoo News. “But I also don’t want to make this an arm of the Democratic Party, because some of the green groups that have been at this a long time reward virtually every Democrat. And then you end up being unable to figure out who really needs the carrots.” So Climate Hawks Vote chooses a handful of candidates in every cycle who are staking out strong positions on climate change and making it a top priority and then it encourages its email list of dedicated climate activists to donate to their campaign. In 2016, for example, the group helped Nanette Barragán defeat the Democratic establishment–backed California state Sen. Isadore Hall, who was the second-largest recipient of oil company donations in the California Legislature, in a congressional race.

On Thursday, Climate Hawks Vote endorsed Texas congressional candidates Jessica Cisneros and Greg Kasar. Texas is one of EVP’s 17 targeted states, so whether climate voters can make difference will be put to the test in those two elections, among many others, this year.

Global temperatures are on the rise and have been for decades. Step inside the data and see the magnitude of climate change.

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