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March 23, 2012

Election Protection -- Sierra Club Commits to Fight Voter Suppression

By Sierra Club President Robin Mann


Participatory. That is what our democracy is intended to be! Every eligible citizen who wants to should be able to register, vote, and have their vote counted.

But we are now witnessing in this country what may be the most serious assault on voting rights since the years following Reconstruction after the Civil War, when poll taxes and rigged literacy tests disenfranchised countless black Americans.

More than 40 states have passed or introduced legislation that will create unjust and unnecessary obstacles to voting that will disproportionately affect the young, the elderly, people with disabilities, and people of color.

Instead of encouraging civic participation, voter suppression laws disenfranchise voters by creating barriers to the ballot box. These laws often surround voter identification requirements, voter registration drives, and shortened or restricted early voting dates.

On March 22, the Sierra Club Board of Directors formally responded to this threat, adopting a Resolution Supporting Democracy and the Right to Vote.

The resolution states in part:

Just as dirty energy pollutes our air and water, campaign contributions from fossil fuel interests are polluting our democracy. Our political process is being hijacked by individuals and corporations that contribute record amounts of money to influence the outcome of elections and drown out the voices of everyday Americans who depend on a healthy environment.

The Sierra Club believes that we must enable Americans of all political persuasions to compete fairly in the marketplace of ideas, rather than allowing unlimited corporate campaign cash to corrupt the system. We believe that voting is a constitutionally protected right and should be afforded the highest respect and guarded zealously. We believe that access to the ballot should be strengthened for all Americans, not weakened. Furthermore, we believe that the principle of "one person, one vote" should remain fundamental in setting the laws that shape our political processes.

The Sierra Club is making a long-term commitment to defending and strengthening the principles that support a strong democracy. The Sierra Club will engage our 1.4 million members and supporters, our volunteer-led chapters in every state, our legal program, and our volunteer activists across the country to stand up for the values of our democracy, and we will communicate those values broadly to both the environmental base and the American public at large. In every region where voter rights are under threat, the Sierra Club will work hand-in-hand with like-minded organizations to protect access to the ballot box and to strengthen campaign-finance reform laws.

The Board recognized that many of our members are already working hard to protect the right to vote in their states because it is the right thing to do. We wanted them to know they are doing so with the full and enthusiastic support of our organization, and we urge them on. The resolution formally commits the Club to confront this challenge.

Restrictive voter ID laws have already been enacted in nine states and introduced in more than 30. They require government-issued photo IDs in order to vote, and have the potential to disenfranchise as many as five million voters. One-quarter of African American voters lack a valid government-issued photo ID, as do 16 percent of Hispanic voters.


Leslie Fields (at right), a lawyer and a longtime civil and voting rights activist who now oversees the Sierra Club's environmental justice and community partnerships work, is ecstatic about the Board's resolution.

"I'm very, very impressed and quite moved that we're doing this," she says. "The communities that are being disenfranchised are struggling with disproportionate pollution. They're also on the vanguard of finding on-the-ground solutions. If these communities are disenfranchised, the environmental movement will be disenfranchised."

Fields believes a culture of voting must be created for each new generation, and many of the current crop of voter-suppression laws are trying to target first-time voters.

"If you succeed in keeping young people from voting, many of them won't try again. If you're young or a student or a new American and you go to vote but you can't for some reason, you might not come back—especially if you feel you were intimidated. In some states you can vote with your gun permit ID, but not with a student ID. If you're hassled or you have to pay for an ID, that's basically like the old poll tax—and $20 for an ID isn't a pittance for low-income people and many citizens of color.

"I'm extremely proud that the Sierra Club now stands shoulder-to-shoulder with these communities, because our democracy is at risk with all this voter suppression," Fields says.

In my own home state of Pennsylvania, it has been shocking to see the state government come under the grip of fossil fuel interests and their agenda to such an extreme extent. But seeing Pennsylvania succumb to this deceitful assault on the fundamental right to vote is truly breathtaking.

I, too, am proud to stand as a Sierra Club member in full solidarity with all those who are fighting to restore our democracy and the right of every citizen to participate in shaping our future.


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