Why defending democracy could be Michigan’s biggest environmental challenge

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In 2020, the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter made an unconventional choice for their “environmentalist of the year”: Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. The group commended her “extraordinary work in safeguarding democracy during this year’s historic elections”, which in Michigan included dealing with Republicans who believed votes were being improperly counted and mobbed Detroit’s TCF Center as President Trump pushed the “Big Lie” that the election had been stolen. Thousands of Trump supporters later stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2020, in a bid to stop the election’s certification. Following the insurrection, 147 Republican members of congress refused to certify the electoral college votes from at least one state.

The Sierra Club’s move acknowledged a new reality:  Successfully protecting the environment requires safeguarding elections from the GOP’s increasingly anti-democratic attacks. 

Although two-thirds of Americans think the government should be doing more to take on the climate crisis, Republicans and some Democrats have been able to stymie climate action. In 2016, Trump won the presidency, despite receiving only 47% of the popular vote, and proceeded to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement. This could serve as a preview for what would happen if Republicans are able to cement minority rule with the help of partisan redistricting, which gives Republicans a significant advantage in state legislatures and congressional races,  as well as the counter-majoritarian Senate and Electoral College,  where Democrats now have to get millions more votes to win control.  The 139 climate deniers currently in Congress are all Republicans – comprising a majority of the congressional Republican caucus. 

Adding to the urgency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest report warned that global greenhouse emissions must be reduced by 25% before 2030 to limit global heating to around 2°C. Essential changes like the widespread adoption of renewable energy and electrification will require political action and policy changes.

“All of our advocacy is premised on the fact that we live in a functioning democracy,” said Christy McGillivray, legislative and political director for the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter. She said that the group’s members instinctively understand the link between voting rights and environmental action, and have been making phone calls to advocate for things such as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would have restored and strengthened the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Groups like the Sierra Club may be in a special position to effect change because their existing networks are motivated by environmental issues, which 64% of U.S. voters identify as a top priority. They also reach into communities beset by environmental threats that advocates say have been ignored by decision-makers. “We have a really big list and our members and supporters trust us,” McGillivray said. 

This year may be especially important for getting the vote out in Michigan on account of a number of newly competitive congressional districts in the state, possibly several important voting rights initiatives on the ballot, and an election for secretary of state that could influence how the 2024 election is conducted. 

Kevin Deegan-Krause, a professor of political science at Wayne State University who has worked with Voters Not Politicians, a voting rights group that successfully pushed a ballot measure to end the partisan gerrymandering of election districts, made clear that a lot is at stake in 2022. He compared the authoritarian tendencies of far-right Republicans to the increasingly autocratic governments in Poland and Hungary that also happen to be favorites of prominent U.S. conservatives.

“The threat to democracy from that wing of the Republican Party is as strong as I’ve ever seen in this country,” he said. 

Yet, for now, voting remains an important avenue for exercising power and can have an outsize impact on climate action. Climate mitigation researcher Seth Wynes, a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University, found that well-placed political donations and voting can make a far more significant impact than other climate actions. He concluded that individuals who voted for candidates backing climate action in the 2019 Canadian federal election reduced emissions equivalent to taking 14 cars off the road for a year. 

Turnout is key

A swing state like Michigan plays a significant role in determining whether climate goals will be met. “The single strongest permitted environmental impact is turnout and winning elections,”   Deegan-Krause said.

Voter turnout this year will likely be more important than usual on account of newly competitive districts where a small number of votes could make the difference, Deegan-Krause said. As voters have become more ideologically divided, they have become less persuadable, making close elections a question of who shows up to vote.

For statewide elections and ballot initiatives, turnout in cities like Detroit, where Democratic votes concentrate, could be the key to winning. Although turnout numbers have been dismal, environmental justice groups are already engaging potential voters. In 2020, voter turnout in Detroit was 49.6%, higher than in 2016, but well below the state average of 71%.

“On Detroit’s east side, we have a very low voting rate,” said Sandra Turner-Handy, the senior policy advisor at the Michigan Environmental Council who also works on voter engagement. In 2021’s municipal elections, part of her work involved helping residents who had trouble finding drop boxes or whose polling places had changed

Turner-Handy is involved in working on the north side of I-94, which she calls “the poor section of District 4” where residents feel overlooked compared to the higher income neighborhoods south of the expressway. She said this kind of neighborhood-level organizing could help get voters to the poll.

“Nine times out of 10, you find residents that are willing to go out and clean a corridor, plant trees and things like that, those are going to be the ones that are more likely to go vote because they’re making that investment in their community,” she said.

Jamesa Johnson-Greer, executive director for the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, said that in 2019 her group identified seven environmental justice hot spots in places like Flint, Benton Harbor and Saginaw and targeted these areas to increase voter turnout, contacting 65,000 voters through a text campaign. That was crucial in securing Democratic victories in 2020, she said.

 “I think that we are in a special position because we identify the often overlooked communities,” she said. And the tens of thousands of voters that her group is in contact with could be decisive in Michigan, where 10,704 votes decided the 2016 presidential election.

Protecting voting rights

Still, efforts to get residents to vote could be undercut by the 39-bill election integrity” package pushed by Michigan Republican senators.. The package would prevent the secretary of state from mailing out absentee ballot applications unless specifically requested, prohibit voters from using drop boxes after 5 p.m. on the day before the election, and require stricter voter ID requirements, among other restrictions. Although often presented as politically and racially neutral, such restrictions have made it harder for Black and Latinx voters to cast their ballots and put Republicans at an advantage in other states.

Since these bills are unlikely to be signed by a Democratic governor, Republican lawmakers and activists are circulating the Secure MI Vote petition that would exploit a loophole in the state constitution that allows registered voters to propose legislation through a petition, without requiring voter approval. The legislature can then pass it with a simple majority, circumventing the governor’s veto.

Deegan-Krause says the voting bills and petition are “solutions in search of a problem.” Despite a load of disinformation, voter fraud is virtually non-existent. According to one report, Michigan tallied a grand total of 56 “suspicious” votes in 2020.

“People just don’t cheat. The penalties are too high, and the benefits are too low,” Deegan-Krause said. “It’s like breaking into a police station to steal a lottery ticket.”

In response, the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club and the Michigan League of Conservation Voters are backing a ballot initiative, Promote the Vote, which would amend the state constitution to ensure nine days of early voting, retain current voter ID rules, and fund ballot postage, drop boxes and ballot tracking. The initiative would also clearly define that “the role and responsibility of the boards of canvassers–at the county and state level–is to certify the election results based on the votes cast,” said Micheal Davis Jr., redistricting campaign director for Promote the Vote

Another set of ballot initiatives called MI Right to Vote would close the loophole that Republicans are attempting to use to institute voting restrictions and implement other reforms like blocking the legislature from adding an appropriation to a bill to make it referendum proof.  

However, cold weather, the lingering COVID-19 pandemic and a shortage of paid workers to circulate petitions have made it harder to get signatures for these initiatives

Washtenaw County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum said he believes voters would pass both Promote the Vote and MI Right to Vote. Still, he doesn’t think either initiative will obtain the 425,059 signatures needed by July 11 to make it on the ballot. He also doubts the Secure MI Vote petition can get the 340,047 voter signatures it needs by June 1, meaning Michigan could head into 2024 with similar problems as the last presidential election.

After the vote

In 2020, Republicans created a roadmap that showed how to use election machinery to undermine the will of voters. They focused on boards of canvassers, bipartisan boards made up of two Republicans and two Democrats that have traditionally carried out the routine task of double-checking election results to influence elections. Republican canvassers in Wayne County initially refused to sign off on the election result before reversing themselves after a public outcry that unfolded over Zoom

Michigan Republican legislators drove out party members and canvassers like Aaron Van Langevelde, who voted to certify the presidential election. They’ve since nominated Herb Boyd to serve as a Wayne County canvasser, who said he would not have certified the 2020 election.

“Nobody to my knowledge predicted that the [Wayne County] board of canvassers would be a site of national, news-making conflict,” Deegan-Krause said. 

Michigan now has a secretary of state who McGillivray believes will protect elections. But that could change. The state GOP has selected the Trump-backed Kristina Karamo,  who claims to have witnessed fraud during the vote counting at the TCF Center in 2020, as their candidate for secretary of state in 2022.

A change in state leadership in 2022 could make voting more difficult during the 2024 presidential election and incumbent Jocelyn Benson warned that Karamo might even “find those extra votes if the candidate asked them.”

Moreover, new threats seem to be popping up all the time. One of the most recent is a dispute over the so-called “union bug,” a union logo that appears on ballot initiatives that Republican state canvassers challenged for having a typeface that is too small. This would primarily affect Democratic candidates for office and ballot initiatives. Deegan-Krause says this highlights a willingness to use seemingly innocuous rule changes for “veiled partisan efforts” – the sorts of legal avenues that could be key to solidifying minority rule.

“Contemporary democracies that die meet their end at the ballot box, through measures that are nominally constitutional,” the scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote in The Atlantic. “The looming danger is not that the mob will return; it’s that mainstream Republicans will ‘legally’ overturn an election.”

These ongoing assaults on elections and vote-counting mean environmental groups anxious to act on the climate crisis and other issues may need to redouble their efforts to protect the vote. McGillivray says the Sierra Club plans to participate again in the state’s Partners in Democracy program to drive voter engagement and ensure that polls are properly staffed on election day.  

“I think that our members and supporters automatically understand that our advocacy is premised on being in a system where advocacy matters,” she said. “If we cannot hold elected officials accountable through free, fair and transparent elections, where everyone can participate, then it’s a whole different game we’re playing and it’s pretty disturbing.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the 39 bill GOP package would have stopped the secretary of state from sending out unsolicited absentee ballots instead of absentee ballot applications.


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