Mail-in voting in the U.S. dates back to the 1864 presidential election. The Civil War was in full swing, and then President Abraham Lincoln wanted to be sure his Union soldiers could cast their votes from the frontlines.
These days when the country feels on the brink of a new civil war, mail-in-voting is in the spotlight again. The soldiers this time, however, are fighting for their right to a habitable future. They’re combatting climate change.
Welcome to The Frontline, where I’m making the climate case for vote-by-mail. I’m Yessenia Funes, the climate editor at Atmos. This edition will explore how universal mail-in voting can increase voter turnout among communities of color, poor communities, and all those whose votes our failing democracy has pushed out. By empowering these communities—the ones plagued by pollution and violence—we may finally kick those damn polluters out.
The 2020 election will see the largest number of voters eligible to vote through mail—and that’s largely due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, this option has existed for years in states such as Washington and Colorado. It existed for me when I lived in Seattle five years ago. I didn’t have to apply for any ballot. One day, I checked my mailbox, and voila! My ballot was there. I was impressed with the ease, the convenience, the accessibility.
Now that states are turning to mail-in ballots to protect their constituents from a highly contagious and deadly virus, I began to wonder: Is there a climate case for voting by mail? If fewer people are rushing to the polls on a single day, there must be some environmental benefit, right? In rural areas where people probably drive to their polling station, pollution levels must be lower on Election Day, right? Well, I couldn’t find any empirical evidence of any of that beyond this one study finding more car crashes happen, but experts did agree this is likely true.
“It makes some sense that mail voting would lead to few emissions, but I don’t know for sure, or by how much,” said Steve Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard University, in an email to me. “Who wins the elections, especially the presidency, will have huge implications, which is reason enough to vote, even if you have to drive a little farther.”
He is 100 percent right. About all that—especially the last part. That’s why everyone needs the option to vote. Mail-in voting helps a whole lot here. It opens the door to voters who may not have the time, energy, or resources to make it to the booth on Election Day. And that’s the real climate case for mail-in balloting. It has nothing to do with our individual carbon emissions and everything to do with strengthening the electorate. That’s how we can pass climate policy.
“Empowering people who carry the disproportionate burden of environmental injustice would empower them to protect their interests.”
A working paper published earlier this year found that universal vote-by-mail, the system where states mail ballots to all voters, increased voter turnout in Colorado, which implemented the policy in 2013. The authors compared voter file data from 2010 through 2018 to see how individual voter turnout evolved over the years. They found that it increased by 9.4 percentage points. The most pronounced increase in voter turnout was among young people, voters with less education, and voters of color. Black voters surveyed saw the largest increase: 13.2 percentage points. Latinx and Asian Americans experienced a similar increase of 10 and 11.2 percentage points, respectively.
“This is a large effect,” the authors write in the paper. “To the best of our knowledge, rarely, if ever, do we observe within-individual (or even within-state) turnout effects of this magnitude from changes in election law.”
For Darrell West, the vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, “the bigger the vote, the more environmentally conscious the electorate will be.” That’s especially true if we’re talking voters of color. Black and Latinx people are more alarmed or concerned about climate change compared to white people. White people are more likely to be doubtful or dismissive. Like I got into earlier this week, voters of color care because environmental issues hit them first and worst. Building a political system inclusive of their voices should help us to elect candidates whose ideals reflect their constituents.
“Empowering people who carry the disproportionate burden of environmental injustice would empower them to protect their interests, and that could have an effect on environmental legislation,” said Michael Latner, a senior fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.
So, there you have it, folks. The climate case for mail-in ballots. However, it’s important to note that mail-in voting alone won’t get us across that finish line. Latner suggests that states combine vote-by-mail with automatic voter registration, which removes the barrier for getting people registered.
We won’t have all these systems in place in time for this presidential election—where mail-in voting may prove messy because leaders didn’t set adequate funding and infrastructure before implementation—but states need to make it happen. The bare minimum of a functioning democracy is granting the people the tools they need to vote.