The Planet recently sat down with Javier Sierra, a nationally syndicated columnist and the Sierra Club’s associate communications director, to talk about politics, voter suppression, the importance of turning out the Latino vote if we hope to “green” Congress this fall, and what’s at stake in this November’s midterm elections. Here is an excerpt from that conversation.
Planet: Going into Election Day 2016, virtually every poll and pundit predicted a victory for Hillary Clinton. What happened?
Sierra: It’s hard to believe that so many people ended up being so wrong about the same subject in such a short period of time. I hear a lot about the Brexit polls also being overwhelmingly wrong. But that was a referendum about one single issue. The polls in the U.S. tested all sorts of races and issues and practically all of them predicted a Trump defeat. I think voter suppression had a lot to do with the unexpected outcome of the presidential election, and many other races. Pollsters can predict voters’ intentions but never the impact of voter suppression.
Planet: How big a factor was voter suppression and intimidation by hostile poll-watchers in the 2016 election?
Sierra: Back in 2012, I got very involved as a consultant in fighting voter suppression. I saw it as a dangerous threat to democracy and the sacred constitutional right to vote. I thought it could change the outcome of the election. For example, in Dade County, Florida, people had to wait in line up to nine hours to vote. In Las Vegas, the wait was over five hours at some polling places. It got so bad that unions and civil society groups distributed food and water to the waiting voters and offered them to save their place in line so they could go pick up their kids from school or use the bathroom. Fortunately, a combination of factors ameliorated the impact of voter ID laws, including challenges in court, the effective intervention of the Obama Justice Department, and the work of civil society watchdog groups like the ones I was involved with. Voter suppression was very real and kept an untold number of voters from casting their ballots—especially in districts with heavy minority representation—but in 2012 we prevailed.
By contrast, in 2016 there were many more draconian voter ID laws in place, and the Voting Rights Act had been severely crippled by the Supreme Court three years before. For instance, studies tell us that in Ohio, 200,000 people were kept from voting due to voter ID laws and other restrictions. There is compelling evidence that in Wisconsin—a state with some of the toughest voter ID laws, where Trump won by less than 25,000 votes—tens of thousands of people were kept from voting. Michigan and Pennsylvania also have tough voter ID laws. Exit polls show that Trump won Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan by roughly 80,000 votes. If you add up how many voters were suppressed in the Rust Belt alone, you end up with about half-a-million people whose constitutional right to vote was denied. Since the overwhelming majority of these suppressed voters tend to vote Democratic, that’s the election in a landslide, just like the polls predicted.
Planet: Can one generalize about who was targeted by voter suppression?
Sierra: Minorities, the elderly, and young voters, all of whom tend to vote Democratic, these are vulnerable segments of the population who often find it difficult to obtain a voter ID, a driver’s license, or any other form of identification due to a lack of financial resources or inability to travel long distances to obtain these forms of documentation. Some states implement these requirements and then immediately close the very offices where the IDs can be obtained, especially in predominantly Democratic districts. The whole voter suppression campaign—and nowadays we are witnessing the worst voter suppression since the Jim Crow era—is predicated on the profoundly false premise that voter fraud is rampant in the U.S. Time and again, studies demonstrate that this is a fallacy. One might call it a solution desperately in search of a problem. In 2014, the Washington Post published a comprehensive voter fraud study, which found that out of more than 1 billion votes cast in the U.S., a grand total of 31 votes were credible cases of voter impersonation fraud. This is .000003 percent of the votes cast. It’s almost comical to think that an undocumented immigrant would risk prison or deportation or both to cast a vote that is unlikely to make a difference in changing their status.
Planet: What’s at stake in the 2018 midterm elections?
Sierra: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that democracy itself is at stake. After 14 months of Trump, our worst fears have been more than confirmed, to painful extremes. As a Latino, it breaks my heart to see millions of my compadres living in fear; so many being deported and separated from their families, expelled to countries where they would be perfect strangers. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) kids, 800,000 of them, are living in permanent anguish as they see the Trump administration using them as bargaining chips in a cruel legislative game that could doom their future in the only country they know.
From an environmental point of view, we are seeing an unprecedented attack on the safeguards that keep polluters from intensifying the toxic bombardment that so many Latinos and low-income communities of color endure on a daily basis. Trump thinks that progress means doubling down on propping up coal, a 19th-century fuel that is poisoning our lungs and destroying the atmosphere that gives us life. Also, now that we have finally increased the number of Latinos visiting public lands, including national parks, Trump and his Interior Department enforcer, Ryan Zinke, are shrinking the national monuments system and making more difficult for many Latinos to enjoy our national parks by increasing admission fees.
Planet: How important is the environment to Latino voters?
Sierra: Latinos are ahead of the curve when it comes to awareness of the environment and climate change. Ninety percent of us believe climate change is real, and similar percentages believe the federal government must be more involved in the climate fight. Why? Because we, along with African Americans, are disproportionately exposed to environmental degradation, toxic pollution, and the adverse health effects caused or at least exacerbated by climate change. Clean air and water and clean energy are top priorities for Latinos—more so than for most communities in the U.S. But we also must keep in mind that Latinos are under attack by a president who calls us criminals and rapists. The immigration raids going on right now are terrifying for millions of my compadres, so that’s their top priority right now.
Planet: How important is turning out the Latino vote in this year’s midterms if we hope to “green” Congress—that is, make it more environmentally friendly.
Sierra: It’s absolutely essential. In so many districts across the country, Latino voters have the power to affect the outcome of crucial races that will very likely determine the makeup of the House of Representatives, the Senate, governorships, and a long list of other state and local races that could radically change the country’s political landscape. The problem is that Latinos tend to skip off-year elections. Many of them are just too busy making ends meet, sometimes working two or even three jobs. But there’s too much at stake this time around. Latinos have to turn out and vote in this year’s midterms.
Planet: What can be done to combat voter apathy and help ensure that this will happen?
Sierra: I think after nearly a year-and-a-half of Trump, there is enough frustration, anger, and fear out there among Latinos to turn this apathy around. But it’s incumbent upon all of us in the progressive movement to energize the Latino community by making them fully aware of what’s at stake if they don’t vote. And they must be made aware as well of all the obstacles and voter suppression tactics that they’re likely to confront on their way to the polls. There must be a national campaign sponsored by organizations such as the Sierra Club, the broader environmental and progressive movements, and civil society to counter voter suppression. Public education initiatives, media campaigns, and grassroots efforts must all be undertaken to fight the undemocratic and un-American voter suppression tactics that deny voters their constitutional rights.
Planet: Why is the current GOP leadership bereft of environmental champions?
Sierra: Because so many of them are in the back pocket of the fossil fuel industry. This industry has turned the climate fight into a political football, whereas in the rest of the world it’s accepted as fact and treated as a matter of survival for humankind. The Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court that enshrined in law the concept that money is a form of speech has poisoned politics in the United States. Take the fossil fuel industry’s money out of the equation and climate change will never be debated again. The science will be accepted and climate change will be fought with clear and unprecedented intensity.
Planet: What are the biggest impediments to electing a Congress that isn’t in the fossil fuel industry’s back pocket?
Sierra: In addition to voter suppression, gerrymandering all across the country is putting many candidates at a severe and sometimes insurmountable disadvantage, forcing them to “fight with one hand tied behind their back,” so to speak. This is a consequence of the progressive movement having neglected thousands of races across the country over the years, while conservative governors and state legislators have redrawn electoral districts to accommodate their goals. We need to stop this vicious cycle, and the only way is to regain the control of those governorships and state legislatures.
Planet: What steps must be taken if we hope to elect a Congress that isn’t so beholden to the fossil fuel industry?
Sierra: Voter education, voter turnout, and grassroots efforts like the ones we’ve seen recently in Virginia, Alabama, and Pennsylvania. There is a lot of anger, frustration, and fear out there—enough to energize millions of voters. As President Obama said, “Don’t boo, vote!” More than ever, that should be progressive voters’ theme this time around. But candidates must offer the electorate more than just anti-Trump rhetoric. We need commitments from candidates to fight for affordable healthcare, clean air and water, environmental and social justice, fair immigration reform with a path to citizenship, and above all, human decency, a resource that has been in very short supply in the White House since January 20 of last year.
Planet: What role can—or should— the Sierra Club play in this effort?
Sierra: I should say that what the Club did at the grassroots level in Virginia during last year’s gubernatorial election was nothing short of marvelous. As regards the Latino vote, I think the Club needs to expand its scope and seek alliances with national Latino and civil rights and environmental justice organizations to combat voter apathy and get out the vote. With its resources and influence, the Club can be a crucial partner in a national alliance to fight voter suppression, educate Latino voters about the obstacles this shameful tactic will put in their way, and help channel the Latino community’s frustration and fear via the ballot box.
Planet: How do you see the political landscape shaping up for 2020?
Sierra: November’s election will tell. That’s how crucial it will be. I think 2018 will be as crucial as 2016.
by Tom Valtin
Tom Valtin is a managing editor in the Sierra Club’s Communications Department.