Inside Environmentalists' Final Efforts to Get Out the Vote

Workers start pre-processing absentee ballots at the city of Lansing Clerk’s Election Unit on November 2, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan
Workers start pre-processing absentee ballots at the city of Lansing Clerk’s Election Unit on November 2, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan
Photo: Jeff Kowalsky (Getty Images)

This election cycle, the climate crisis is on Americans’ minds. In an October poll from the New York Times and Siena College, 58% of people surveyed said they were “very concerned” or at least “somewhat concerned” about climate change, and potential voters in swing states expressed worry about its effects in their communities. Across the country, environmentalists are hard at work to make sure those climate-conscious voters turn out.


Thousands of volunteers with the youth-led climate advocacy group, the Sunrise Movement, for instance, are phonebanking in swing states, pushing first-time voters to cast their ballots, and encourage their friends to do the same.

“So far, we’ve reached 2.1 million unique voters for the general election in key states through dials, texts, postcards, and [campus organizing],” Neha Desaraju, an organizer with Sunrise, said.

Sunrise’s 2,300 volunteers are encouraging their constituents to vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden for president, as well as for the Green New Deal candidates they’ve endorsed further down the ballot. Five thousand volunteers with another group, the Environmental Voter Project, are simply encouraging voters to head to the polls in general.

“When we’re reaching out to potential voters, we never ever talk about specific candidates,” Nathaniel Stinnett, founder and executive director of the Environmental Voter Project, said. “We never even mention the climate or the environment.”

Instead, Stinnett’s organization uses data on voters’ histories combined with polling to identify potential voters who list climate change as a top concern, but are unlikely to vote in elections.


“We’re not trying to change people’s minds, we’re trying to change the behavior of the people whose minds are already there,” Stinnett said.

It appears these organizing efforts are already having an impact. Environmental Voting Project data shows that in swing states like Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Florida, 21% of the 26.5 million total ballots that were already cast during early voting came from voters who are likely to list environmental concerns among their top political priorities. Of those nearly 4.8 million climate-conscious early voters, roughly one-third were people who the group targeted as unlikely voters.


“That’s almost 560,000 of them who were mostly first time voters or otherwise hadn’t voted in an election in maybe a decade,” Stinnett said.

Young people, who are more likely to prioritize climate policy at the ballot box, have also been turning out in droves. Recent data from Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found that a week before from the election, early youth voting increased from 2016 in most states. If even more young people and other eco-conscious voters turn out, it could make a big difference in the election, particularly in battleground states like Texas, where Desaraju is based and where Trump and Biden are neck and neck in the polls.


“Texas has record youth voter turnout, literally the highest in the country,” she said. “I can’t vote (I’m 17), but I genuinely did not believe this would happen in my lifetime.”

Though Biden wasn’t Sunrise’s first choice for the presidency—the group endorsed Bernie Sanders in the primary race—Desaraju said his success is critical to the future of climate policy, since the proposals the organization has pushed under a Green New Deal have a far better chance of passing under him than under Trump.


“We made climate the standout public narrative this election cycle, and all that would really be put to work in a Biden administration,” she said.

Though youth are more likely to prioritize climate than older voters, not all eco-conscious voters are young. A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll showed that 12% of all voters across America listed climate or the environment as their top priority.


“Let’s say there’s 160 million people who come out to vote this year. Twelve percent of that is something like 19 million people,” Stinnett said. “That’s a huge voting bloc. That’s four times as many people as there are NRA members. That is a politically powerful constituency.”

But that power will go to waste, he said, if those millions of people stay home this election cycle.


“Politicians know who votes and who doesn’t vote. It’s public record,” he said. “Politicians only care about getting enough votes to win elections. They want our votes. We need to show them that good climate policy will get them there, that it can win them elections.”

You can learn more about Sunrise’s get out the vote efforts here and Environmental Voter Project’s here.


Staff writer, Earther


Dense non aqueous phase liquid

Reportedly the Sunrise Movement (sorry, youth-led Sunrise Movement) is about bringing power the people. Literally bringing power to the people by moving away from utility scale generation, transmission and distribution of electricity to a more distributed model such as rooftop solar and/or co-op or community scale generation with community ownership. As an aside, here’s a nice article from Jennie Stephens on the general premise as an explainer :

Energy Democracy: Redistributing Power to the People Through Renewable Transformation

Truly an interesting article and worth the read.

Let’s see where we are today as far as how electricity is consumed by end user with a fantastically terrific graph. Besides the blue line, lines for end user type are pretty self explanatory (residential, commercial, industrial, transportation).

The blue line is direct use of electricity. Direct use is any user-generated electricity be it a homeowner with rooftop solar or an industrial manufacturing plant using on site nat gas fed co-gen or something. Direct use would be what the cool kids at Sunrise Movement apparently want more of.

Let’s hope our great nation’s humanities majors/environmental studies minors from boutique liberal arts schools are up for the challenge. A lot of gifted and talented brain power in that grouping. The best and brightest.

By the way, what’s really cool about the graph is how electricity end use has flattened over the past ten to twenty years. That’s the result of the push for transmission and delivery (i.e. the grid) optimization and modification and the ever improving efficiency measures (e.g. LED lighting, VFD motors, etc).

eta: cleaned up some fucked up wordings and whatnots.