The Surprising Truth About Environmentalists and Voting (Re-Broadcast and Update)

As the US presidential election nears, we wanted to re-share a conversation we had on Warm Regards in 2018 with Nathaniel Stinnett, the founder and executive director of the Environmental Voter Project. Many of the things we discussed with him then, especially why lots of environmentalists don’t vote, are just as relevant today. After the 2018 conversation, Nathaniel shares an update about the organization’s work leading up to this year’s presidential election and how you can get involved beyond voting.

Make sure you have a plan to vote. Visit IWillVote.com to learn about the specific options and requirements in your area.

Our first conversation with Nathaniel took place in October of 2018.

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The full transcript of this episode can be found below.

Justin Schell
Welcome to Warm Regards. I’m Justin Schell, the producer for the show. Jacquelyn and Ramesh will be back in two weeks with a brand new episode, but in the meantime, we thought it was important to re-share a conversation we had two years ago with Nathaniel Stinnett, the founder and Executive Director of the Environmental Voter Project. Many of the things we discussed with him then, especially why lots of environmentalists don’t vote, are just as relevant today. And stay tuned to the end of the episode, where Nathaniel will share an update about the organization’s work leading up to this year’s presidential election and how you can get involved beyond voting.

Jacquelyn Gill
So we’re really happy to have you here, and excited to have you on the show.

Nathaniel Stinnett
Well, thank you Jacquelyn and thank you Ramesh. I’m really excited to be here with you guys.

Jacquelyn
So do you feel like we’re seeing something different in this election? We keep hearing all these projections about how college students are really gonna vote this time and the projected voter turnout is really high in various places. And I think I just read an article that my home state of Vermont has something like a 92% voter registration rate for the state, which is crazy awesome. So do you feel like something’s different? Are we going to see a shift from the recent past?

Nathaniel
Yes. I absolutely feel like something is different. Our field director just told me about an hour ago that a million people have already voted in Florida.

Jacquelyn
Wow.

Ramesh Laungani
That’s awesome.

Nathaniel
Florida has early voting and their in-person early voting hasn’t started yet. So all of these people are people who requested that ballots be mailed to them and have already mailed them back in. And just to put that number in context, just to give you a denominator, I think barely six million people voted in the 2014 midterms in Florida. So the fact that a million people have already voted mean something’s going on. Now who are those people? That I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you with whether these are young people storming the polls or liberals or conservatives. I don’t know, but you’re right that there’s a new energy going on this time around.

Jacquely
So speaking of demographics, you focus mostly on kind of an untapped group — the environmental movement. We often think of environmentalists as really active in terms of making lifestyle choices. You know, giving up meat and dairy or abandoning your car for a bicycle takes a lot of effort, and a lot more than going to the polls. So my question for you is: how are we doing? Are we actually voting as a group?

Nathaniel
Ah, Jacquelyn, you ask the $64,000 question. No, we’re not. We’re not! Environmentalist are awful voters; I’m not going to sugar coat it. We’ve done a lot of research on this and it’s pretty easy to measure because whether you vote or not (and a lot of Americans don’t know this) is public record. I’ll never be able to look up who Ramesh voted for or who Jacquelyn voted for, but I can absolutely look up which elections you vote in and which elections you don’t. So people are able to run large polls and build predictive models and identify all the environmentalists in various states and it turns out that environmentalists habitually under-vote. They vote far less often than the average voter in almost every other state. And just to give you some context here, I’ll use 2016 presidential election as an example. In 2016, 69% of registered voters voted, but only 50% of environmentalists did.

Ramesh
Hmm!

Jacquelyn
Wow.

Nathaniel
Yeah. And if you go back to 2014, it’s even worse. 44% of registered voters voted, but only 21% of environmentalist did.

Jacquelyn
So the obvious follow-up question there is why? Is that like the $135,000 question?

Nathaniel
That’s the sixty-four thousand and one dollar question. So we know some of the reasons but only some of the reasons. Part of what’s going on here is just demographic correlations. I don’t know what the environmental movement was like ten, twenty, thirty years ago, but it certainly isn’t now what people imagine as the stereotypical environmentalist. The typical environmentalist now is not, well, it’s not me. It’s not some white yuppie who hops into their electric vehicle to get to their job downtown. People who deeply care about climate and the environment are now much more likely to make less than $50,000 a year, be African-American or Latino and live within five miles of an urban core; and they are predominantly younger, but that’s not so much the case anymore. And all of those demographic groups that I just mentioned right now vote less often than the average American. So part of what’s going on here is just that environmentalist’s are likely to be part of demographic groups that just habitually undervote. But the really interesting thing is that’s not all that’s going on here because, even if you look at just the young people, environmentalist vote less often than the other young people. Or even if you look just at Latinos, the environmental Latinos vote less often than the other Latinos, so something else is going on here. And the honest answer, guys, is we don’t know what it is because it’s really easy for behavioral scientists to measure why someone takes an action. It’s really easy to set up an experiment, to figure out how to get someone to vote. What’s really hard is to figure out the opposite. What’s really hard is to set up an experiment to figure out why people don’t take an action, like exercising or voting or vaccinating their children or something like that. The best you can do is ask them. And when we ask environmentalist (why they’re not voting) they lie their pants off.

Jacquelyn
More than other people?

Nathaniel
No, not more than other people, and that’s a good question. But no matter how you ask the question, if you try to determine why people don’t vote, the responses they’ll give are responses that they think you want to hear. What we’ve realized is that even non-voters still buy into the societal norm that voting is a good thing. Everybody wants to be known as a voter, just like everybody wants you to think that they brush their teeth or wash their hands every time or something like that. Voting is a societal norm that we all buy into. And so we ask people why they don’t vote, they will often before they even give you an excuse, guys, they will lie their pants off and say, “Oh no, I vote all the time, Jacquelyn.” And we know that’s a lie because whether you vote or not as public record.

Jacquelyn
Right.

Nathaniel
We poll these people looking at their voting histories and we know that they’ve never voted in their entire lives, and they swear up and down all the time that they vote whenever there’s an election. And so the honest answer to your question (and it’s a good one) is we don’t know why environmentalists aren’t voting, but we’ve got some good ideas as to how to get them to vote.

Ramesh
So Nathaniel, you see this information, you think maybe it’s a demographic correlation, but you dig into the data and you’re still seeing this lower voter turnout amongst environmentalist. I guess I have two questions: a) are those self-identified environmentalist? And b) how do you not get depressed when you see that data?

Nathaniel
So to answer your first question: yes, these are people and obviously there are a million-and-one ways to define an environmentalist. We identify people who list climate change or some other environmental issue as either their number one or number two priority. And then to get to your second question: the way that we’re able to identify these people is not because there are lists somewhere that you can go by of all the super-environmentalists. What we do is we start by polling tens of thousands of people per state. These are enormous polls. What we do is we simply ask people, “What’s your number one most important political priority? What’s your number two most important political priority?” And once we isolate those super environmentalist in a state, we then work with data scientists to look at these people’s behavioral data and consumer data and the data that’s on the voter files and we build models. We build predictive models that help us figure out who all the other environmentalists are in a state. I know that sounds really complicated and convoluted, but it’s how every political campaign now targets voters and it’s actually not that different from what, say, insurance companies do, right? Like you apply for life insurance and you need to say, “This is how much I drank,” “This is how much I smoke,” “No, I don’t like to dive off cliffs.” You give them all this data about yourself and they use that information to work with actuarial tables and (not to get morbid) they need to figure out how long you’re going to live.

Ramesh
Right.

Nathaniel
And if they’re off, just by a little bit, they lose billions of dollars. So the insurance company has figured this out and we do the same thing. But instead of trying to figure out how long you’re gonna live, we try to identify all of the super environmentalists in a state.

Ramesh
So I guess that leads into sort of a followup question. You said you asked them if climate change is the number one issue or number two issue. Does it break down on different environmental issues that might not be climate change? How nuanced do you get in terms of their environmental issues or is it, “Is the environment important to you? Number one or number two?”

Nathaniel
Right. So it’s really the latter. We are not a climate change only organization. And that’s for a few reasons, I think the biggest of which is I think a lot of these environmental issues are intertwined and it’s often a fool’s errand to pretend otherwise. But no, we are an environmental voter turnout organization and if someone says that wildlife conservation or clean air is their number one priority or their number two priority, we’ll turn those people out just like we’ll turn someone out who says climate changes their number one priority. Sometimes we do have that data (sometimes we do have the breakdowns) but when it all goes through all of our algorithms and we figure out who we’re going to target, we’re going to turn out the marine biologist who cares about clean oceans just like we’re going to turn out the hipster in Brooklyn who cares about climate change.

Ramesh
I guess speaking of turnout, you are targeting a lot of different environmentalists. So if you want to get them to the polls, what have you found works?

Nathaniel
Yeah, this is the interesting thing, Ramesh. What the Environmental Voter Project does not do is talk about the environment — for a few good reasons. The biggest of which is it doesn’t work. Now I want to be clear about what we’re doing here. What we’re not doing is trying to persuade people to care about these issues. Remember, we’re already preaching to the choir. We’ve found people who if you shake them awake at night, they’re going to scream “climate change”. These are super environmentalist, right? But not voting. And so we can afford to be completely agnostic in our messaging. I mean, we would talk about chocolate chip cookies if it got these people to vote. And what we’ve realized (and it’s not just us; other behavioral scientists realized this, too) is that the best way to turn a non-voter into a voter is not to try to rationally convince them of the value of their vote because of the issue that they care about. Instead, we take advantage of how they want to view themselves (of the type of person they want to be). And then we apply peer pressure and social pressure trying to get them to vote. I know that sounds a little creepy (and it is) [laughing] and I know it sounds a little juvenile and it is -

Jacquelyn
But there’s a reason it worked in middle school.

Nathaniel
That’s exactly right! This is why all the fourth graders said this stuff on the playground; it’s because it works. I mean, how many of you have suddenly lost five pounds because someone told you one fact? Or maybe you started brushing your teeth because someone told you a fact. No! That’s not how you change people’s behavior. We know that in so many other contexts, but when it comes to politics or trying to convince people about climate change, we often fall into this trap that the seventeenth fact that we bashed them over the head with is finally going to get them to do something. And the truth is that the best way we’ve found to get people to vote is to say things like, “Jacquelyn, did you know that last time there was an election, ninety-three people on your block of main street turned out to vote?

Jacquelyn and Ramesh: Hmm.

Nathaniel
Simply say that. Or we’ll send a letter to you, Ramesh,and we’ll say, “Ramesh, I want to remind you that who you vote for is secret, but whether you vote or not is public record. In fact, you’ll see below that we’ve included a copy of your public voting history.” [Laughter] Right! We really turn the screws! But what’s amazing is this stuff sends turnout through the roof. I’m not a policy guy (I sound silly even saying this to the two of you) but we all know that the climate crisis is not a small thing and if using some of these peer pressure and social pressure and behavioral science techniques can get hundreds of thousands of environmentalist to start voting, you’re damn right I’m going to use them. Absolutely.

Jacquelyn
It’s so interesting to me because I feel like there are so many themes and threads that we keep touching on on this show, and one of them is this idea of what’s called the “deficit model” in science communication or in teaching — the idea being that people will change their behavior or they will learn something better if you just give them more facts (which, as you’ve said, doesn’t work). We know it doesn’t work and it’s deeply uncomfortable to me as an educator that this doesn’t work because we’re sort of trained to just give students more information and more facts, and then hope that they will make better decisions as citizens or that they’ll do better on the exam. It turns out that so much of what you need to do to change behavior comes down to psychology; it comes down to empathy and storytelling and the sort of more squishy approaches that involve feelings and not data or facts. It sounds like you’re saying that these are the same principles that are underlying what’s effective from your point of view. And so I’m wondering, your background is as an attorney; you’re working on these get-out-the-vote campaigns, but it sounds like you’re leveraging a lot of psychology here. Did you just grow up knowing this stuff? How did you learn more about how people tick in order to be able to do the work that you do?

Nathaniel
It’s a great question. And the answer is, no, I did not grow up knowing this stuff. You’re right, that we are one of these sort of weird environmental nonprofits that really doesn’t do any environmental policy work. We really are behavioral scientists. All we really do are data science and behavioral science, and I came to this in kind of a roundabout way. So you’re right that I was an attorney, but while I was in law school and all through while I was practicing law I helped run (either as a campaign manager or a senior strategist) political campaigns big and small — from U.S. Senate races down to little city council and state rep races. I was always deeply frustrated by one thing, and it’s something that both of you are probably painfully familiar with. When you poll likely voters in any election — in any election — and you ask them to list their top priorities, climate change and other environmental issues are way, way down towards the bottom of that list. In your open, you started talking about how this year was a little different and I’m excited to talk about that because I think you might be right that things are changing. But certainly up until now, whether you’re talking about a race for president or a race for city council (when you poll likely voters) climate change and the environment is way, way down their list of priorities. And that has an enormous impact on how policy is made. Because even when we elect the right people, even when we elect great environmentalists, there’s no way in hell they’re going to push hard and spend their political capital on something that voters don’t care about. They’re just not. And this always frustrated me as I was running these campaigns. Something really interesting happened about four, now almost five years ago. I finished running a mayoral campaign in Boston and was taking some time off before what I thought would be going back to my law firm. That was waiting for our first child to be born. I stumbled across some polling data for what was then the 2014 midterms. What I started to see in this polling data was that although when you poll voters climate change in the environment is way down their list of priorities, that’s not quite what you see when you poll all Americans. When you poll all American adults or even all registered voters, I won’t claim the climate changes up near the top (of course it isn’t), but it’s a little bit closer to the middle. I started looking at more and more polling data and I started to see the same trend. I thought, “Huh, what if the environmental movement doesn’t have a persuasion problem, as much as we have a turnout problem?” What if there are a whole bunch of environmentalists who don’t need to have their minds changed? They just need their behavior changed. Because I had some time off (because I was waiting for our kid to be born and then I was going to be on paternity leave), I started to dig into a lot of the behavioral science that we had just begun to use on some of the campaigns that I was working on and really started to see that there were a whole lot of techniques that campaigns were beginning to use, but no one was truly diving into them — largely because a political campaign at best last nine months or twelve months. So I started teaching myself and I started talking to behavioral psychologists and other behavioral scientists and really learning the best ways — not to persuade people, not to change anybody’s mind but to change their habits, to change their behavior because that’s what I decided the environmental movement really, really needed at this moment in time.

Jacquelyn
I think that’s a really powerful distinction because so often I hear from people who feel really isolated or like they care about the environment but they feel very depressed about it. The situation in the world and politically just makes them feel really down about their connection to the environment and the natural world. To know that there’s potentially a very large group of people out there that just aren’t stepping up, I feel like that could really push back against some of this sort of existential angst or environmental depression that people feel because you’re sort of reminding them that, “Hey, you’re not alone. There are a lot more people out there.” It’s a lot less energy to get people to take one day to go to a ballot box than to convince them that they should care about an issue, if that makes sense. It feels to me like there’s all this low-hanging fruit, and we could actually make some traction on environmental issues if you could just get environmentalist to the polls. It’s not this monumental task of having to convince people that the environment is in danger and that they need to care about it.

Ramesh
I think that also puts the ideas that we talked about at the beginning (those Yale Climate Communication maps) into a different context as well. When you ask people if they think the environment is important, or should Congress legislate, or should CO2 be regulated as pollutant? I think they have all those ideas. The assumption is almost like, “Okay, you guys think this is important.” There’s a shift in people’s priorities on that, but maybe we’re not asking the right questions. Maybe they have those opinions, but there’s not the kick in the pants to get them to vote. They recognize the importance of it, but we were just making the assumption that, “They think it’s important, so they’re going to vote.” That seems to be the space that the EVP seems to be filling. Is that an appropriate sort of characterization?

Nathaniel
I think that’s exactly right. I don’t think either of you will be surprised (nor will any of your listeners be surprised) to hear that politicians couldn’t possibly care less about non-voters. Why should they care about nonvoters, right? We wouldn’t expect Starbucks to care about you if you don’t drink coffee. Why would a politician care about the opinions and priorities of non-voters? And again, I know I mentioned this earlier but it bears repeating because it is the lifeblood of how modern campaigns work: who you vote for is secret, but whether you vote or not is public record it’s public record. So let’s say Jacquelyn is running for governor of Maine. And, Jacquelyn, for better or worse you hire me to be your campaign manager. How would you feel if on election day, I sheepishly walk up to you and say, “Ugh, Jacquelyn, I hate to admit this but you know what? I spent all your money talking to people I’m pretty sure aren’t going to vote.”

Jacquelyn
I’d be pretty salty.

Nathaniel
Yes, you’d probably be pretty salty.

Jacquelyn
To use a crusty New Englander term.

Nathaniel
Surprise surprise, political campaigns take the approach of, they look at public voter files and with their limited time and limited money, they only talk to and they only measure the opinions of people who are consistent voters. So that is at once why this turnout problem in the environmental movement is such a big problem, but also such a huge opportunity. This gets to what you were saying, Jacquelyn. You’re absolutely right that changing minds is so much harder than changing behavior and the fact that there are all of these yet-to-be-activated environmentalists out there is an enormous opportunity for us. You know what would be bad news? What would be bad news is if I said, “Hey guys, we’ve done lots of polls and it turns out no one cares about climate change. We’re all screwed.” That would suck, right? Because changing everybody’s mind is damn near impossible but that’s not what’s going on. What’s going on here is that we’ve found tens of millions of already-persuaded, dyed-in-the-wool super-environmentalists out there who are already even registered to vote. We’re just not showing up the few times each year where it’s important. And if we start doing that, nothing can stop us. And I don’t mean that in a kumbaya type of way. That’s not the type of guy I am, believe me. I mean it in a very cynical way. Politicians go where the votes are. It’s just that simple — politicians go where the votes are. It’s the simple arithmetic of how elections work. I think you go where the votes are, or you don’t get to be a politician anymore. And so if all of these environmentalist start voting, my gosh, local and state and federal officials will fall all over themselves to lead on these issues because nothing, nothing motivates a politician more than the prospect of winning or losing an election.

Ramesh
So Nathaniel, I’ll ask: I was doing a little homework on the EVP and it’s a nonpartisan organization, so you’re not necessarily targeting Democrats or Republicans. You’re just saying, “Hey, we noticed that you haven’t voted in a while.” You’re not trying to lead anyone towards a particular candidate or towards a particular agenda.

Nathaniel
That’s exactly right. We are confident that as long as politicians want to win political campaigns, they will respond to environmental issues if tons of environmentalist start voting. It’s like if you drive five thousand coffee drinkers to the door of Starbucks, believe me, they’ll start making more coffee. So our approach is: let’s find all the people who don’t just kinda-sorta care about the environment, but all the people who care about it so deeply that it’s their number one or number two priority (whether they’re independent, whether they’re liberal, whether they’re conservative, no matter who they are) and turn them from non-voters or people who vote very seldom into consistent voters. Because that is going to bring real lasting change. Because, again, politicians have to go where the votes are. They have to, or else they’re not going to be politicians anymore.

Jacquelyn
So what you’re saying is I should just be shaming my friends then into voting.

Nathaniel
Yes!

Jacquelyn
I mean, this is why we wear the stickers, right? I always thought, “The stickers are fun. They make me feel excited, like I’m part of something,” but they have this other role too, right there. If you’re not wearing a sticker, then people are going to notice. It literally sounds like the most effective thing that I could be doing is basically shaming my friends into voting.

Nathaniel
Yes, that’s absolutely right. Peer pressure works. I feel silly explaining this to two scientists who are going to shame me with their far superior knowledge on this stuff, but one of the things (if not the thing) that makes human beings truly unique as a species is not opposable thumbs or a really big cranium or something like that. We are hyper-social beings. I mean, even just over the last ten, fifteen thousand years, what is truly extraordinary is that we’ve moved from creating sort of family unit norms to enormous societal norms that are shared by tens of millions of people who will never, ever see each other. That is what is so extraordinarily unique about us. And these norms are so sticky; we want to adhere to them so much. So yes, peer pressure and other forms of social pressure drive our behavior in extraordinary ways. I’ll give you an example that you guys probably are aware of if you’ve ever volunteered for any political campaign ever.

Jacquelyn
Yes.

Nathaniel
Good, you both should! Chances are you’ve gone to some voters door and you’ve asked them if they intend to vote. Then they say, “Yeah,” and then maybe as a follow up, you say, “Will you sign this card saying that you’re going to vote, and we’re going to mail it back to you?” This is a very simple technique, right? But there’s actually some really sophisticated behavioral science underneath it. The reason this works (the reason asking someone to pledge to vote and then reminding them of that pledge) is not because the voter needs a reminder of the election, but it’s because one of the stickiest societal norms (not just in the United States but anywhere) is that we all want to be viewed as honest, trustworthy people. So if you show someone in their own handwriting that they promised to do something, their likelihood of actually doing it shoots through the roof. That’s a simple thing and when it gets down to it that’s all that we do with the Environmental Voter Project. We search for these societal norms that people want to adhere to, but aren’t adhering to. We use that difference. We take advantage of that to try to change their behavior. We try to trick people into saying that they’re going to vote, and then we remind them that they promise to vote. Or we go up to people who aren’t voting and we remind them that whether they vote or not is public record. Little things like that, but these little behavioral nudges can create enormous changes in turnout.

Ramesh
It’s interesting that you’re taking sort of a two-pronged approach, right? That there’s sort of the sign the pledge in your own handwriting, and so now be your best self and live up to your own expectation — which is really sort of a positive way to get people to the polls. And then there’s sort of the other side of it where you’re showing them the public record of their own voting and you’re sort of shaming them into getting to the polls. It’s an interesting sort of dichotomy coming at that issue from two directions.

Nathaniel
That’s right. We are not afraid of using shame. We certainly use both a carrot and a stick, and some of the techniques work better with some people than others. We’re kind of like a permanent field laboratory, and we’re always testing different techniques and different messages and even different fonts and things like that, trying to figure out what type of message delivered in what manner works best among this group of people versus that group of people. Sometimes the carrot works and sometimes the stick works.

Ramesh
Have there been particular demographics where particular carrots have worked particularly well?

Nathaniel
Yeah, we’ve done some experiments with what’s called thank you mail. If you have an election calendar where your primary is very close to your general election, what we’ve been able to do is see who voted in the primary, then immediately send them letters thanking them for voting. Now that’s not 100% carrot, right? It’s also a little bit creepy and a little bit Orwellian. It’s us saying, “We know that you voted,” but a lot of people love getting it. They love having that good behavior reinforced. And we found that after doing that, it stays sticky. Even beyond that next general election, when you get into the next year’s local elections and sleepy little elections, if people know that someone is essentially watching them and every now and then that person will thank them for being a good voter, that has an enormous amount of power.

Jacquelyn
To circle back to one of our early questions, this is how you don’t get depressed when you see the data on voter turnouts, because you know that was just a little bit of effort things could be so much better.

Nathaniel
That’s exactly right, Jacquelyn. And again, I feel silly saying this to people who know it very, very well; but what the climate crisis is not is some disease for which we have no cure. It is not some enemy that we can’t possibly defeat. I mean, we have so many of the solutions that we need and what we’re largely missing is political will. What we’re largely missing is the political leadership at the local ,state and federal level to enact these things. So when I see this enormous army of latent political power (this enormous army of potential environmental voters), it’s enormously hopeful. It’s so hopeful because simply by showing up, we won’t just change who we elect (although that’s obviously a nice thing), but no matter whom we elect, they’re going to lead on these issues if we start voting. I think that’s so important for people to understand so many people in today’s cynical political world think that their vote doesn’t matter, and they couldn’t be more wrong because of the public nature of the voter file, your vote is the only thing that matters. I mean, there are 255 million adults in the United States today, but only 83 million of them voted in the 2014 midterms. Who do you think members of Congress care about when they’re setting our political agenda? You think they care about all the people who didn’t vote? No way! That’s why it’s so important for environmentalists to vote in every election. Even if you write your dog’s name in on the ballot, simply by voting you become a first-class citizen, and that is really empowering. I think it’s so important for environmentalists to start viewing the act of voting as one of the highest forms of environmental citizenship, because it’s such an easy way to have an impact on policymaking.

Jacquelyn
I think that is an incredible place to end. That’s such a strong and powerful message and an empowering message in a time when I think we all need that so very badly. So I would just say thank you so much for sharing just a little of your wisdom with us and also for motivating people to go out there and shame their friends into voting.

Nathaniel
It’s my pleasure. I loved chatting with you guys and yes, you’re right Jacquelyn, everybody should go out and shame their friends into voting. Absolutely!

[Laughter]

Jacquelyn
You heard it right here, folks.

Schell
Justin here again. I caught up with Nathaniel a few weeks ago to ask him how things have changed since our first conversation in 2018 and what the Environmental Voter Project is doing for the upcoming presidential election. I asked him if environmentalists did in fact vote more in 2018, and if they did, does he expect that to continue in the upcoming election.

Nathaniel
Yes and yes. So first let’s go back a little bit in time just to provide some context for 2018. Heading into the 2016 elections, only 2% of likely voters listed climate or the environment as their number one priority. But exit polling data after the 2018 midterms showed that 7% of voters listed climate or the environment as their top priority. So, yeah, that’s an apples to oranges comparison when you’re comparing midterm elections to presidential elections, but clearly from 2016 to 2018 there was a huge surge in the number of climate voters. And that kept on going right into 2019. By the end of 2019, we saw lots of Democrats running for president, in the Democratic presidential primaries, building their entire campaigns around climate change. And like you, you were lucky if any candidates even mentioned stuff in the 2015 and 2016 presidential primaries. So that was a big deal. Plus we were seeing in polling at the end of 2019, that 12% of likely voters in the upcoming presidential election list climate or the environment as their top priority. So if you think about it going from 2% in 2016 to 12% in the beginning of 2020 is a huge, huge jump. Now, the one caveat to that is that then Coronavirus hits and obviously everybody’s priorities get upended. But although the number of voters listing climate as a top priority has gone down a bit because of coronavirus, it actually hasn’t gone down that much. So there are still significantly more climate voters than we saw in 2016 or even 2018.

Schell
And while Nathaniel told me that the Environmental Voter Project is still applying a lot of the same peer pressure strategies as before, the pandemic has necessitated changes in how they encourage people to vote.

Nathaniel
We’re running what are called “ballot chase programs.” We are checking in with these non-voting environmentalists every step of the way throughout the voting process. So we text and call them to help them sign up for vote by mail. But now we know that’s not good enough. And so once we help them sign up for vote by mail, now we’re also going to text and call them right before their ballot arrives to say, “Hey, heads up your ballot, about to arrive, make sure not to throw it out.” Then we call them and text them a week later to say, “Hey, I just want to make sure that your ballot arrived.” Then we check with their local election officials. And if you haven’t voted, we’ll call them back up and say, “Hey, you haven’t returned your ballot yet. What’s going on here.” Then we contact you again at the beginning of early in person voting and then again on election day. We make sure that voters know every single opportunity they have to vote every single step of the way.

Schell
The Project has also expanded the reach of these ballot chase programs.

Nathaniel
So the Environmental Voter Project is now working in the following 12 States. So in the Southwest we’re in Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. In the Southeast, we’re in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia. And in the Northeast, we’re in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. And in those 12 States, we’ve identified 2.5 million already-registered voters who list climate or the environment as their top priority. Yet they have never ever voted before. So they are really unlikely to show up. And those are our targets. Those are the people we’re going to get to try to push them out the door and make them into first time voters. We have almost 5,000 volunteers who are calling and texting these non-voting environmentalists we have identified. And so anybody who has finished voting, who has voted early and also wants to volunteer and help other non-voting environmentalists vote, we would love to have their help, they can go to EnvirionmentalVoter.org and sign up to volunteer.

Justin
When he brought up the idea of volunteering time to encourage environmentalists to vote, I thought about how many of the environmentalists these volunteers are reaching out to might not be voting because they feel candidates (even progressive candidates) don’t actually go far enough to address the climate crisis. Beyond making sure that people know how and when to turn their ballots in, I asked Nathaniel what he says to environmentalists who believe voting won’t make a difference.

Nathaniel
So that’s a great question. And I’m not going to pretend that I’m not disaffected sometimes. I mean, I have yet to meet a local state or federal politician that is being as aggressive on climate policy as I would like them to be. Like, yeah, like I, I’m not going to try to convince you that your feelings are wrong if you feel that way. But what I think is so important to understand is I think at a very deep level, many of us are cynical about politics. We say, “Oh, you know, these politicians, they are just doing whatever it takes to get elected.” And what I would suggest to you is, yeah, you’re right. They are doing whatever it takes to get elected. And so take your cynicism one step further. If politicians do whatever it takes to get elected, that doesn’t mean that your vote doesn’t matter. That actually means that your vote is the only thing that matters. Because at the end of the day, even if in this hyper partisan environment that we all live in, there is still one thing that unites all Democrats and Republicans, all liberals and conservatives. And that is that they all really like to win elections. And so what that means is they go where the votes are. It’s just the basic arithmetic of how elections work. Either you go where the votes are, or you don’t get to be a politician anymore. And so for all those people who care deeply about aggressive climate leadership and might be frustrated that we don’t always see that. In fact, we rarely see that in our political leaders, what I would suggest to you is that don’t look at your vote as a transaction. Don’t look at it as helping one person who you may not like beat another person who you may not like. Instead view it as making sure that your voice matters.

Because I want to be really clear to everybody who’s listening, whether you vote or not is public record. It is public record. And believe me, whether you’re running for president or Senate or city council or library trustee, you are never, ever, ever going to pay attention to the issue priorities of non voters. You have got to be a voter. Even if you write your dog’s name in on the ballot, when you go into vote, you still need to be a voter because simply by being a voter, your opinion matters. Because those are the only people who politicians care about. So whenever you sit out the election, because you’re frustrated by your choices, you’re not hurting any of the politicians. The only thing you’re doing is ensuring that no one listens to your opinion. And that’s inexcusable, especially for people who care about climate and the environment. We can’t afford to sit out any election. And I would also say heading into November 3rd, people need to understand that this is almost definitely going to be the highest turnout presidential election in history. In history. We had 139 million people vote in 2016. My guess is we’re easily going to hit 150 million this time around. And so please, everybody ask yourself at this crucially important moment in global history, in, geologic history, when there is going to be the highest turnout for a presidential election in American history, do you want to be the person who stayed home and said, “eh, it’s not important enough for me to walk out my door.” My guess is you don’t. My guess is you don’t. And I would strongly encourage all of your listeners. Don’t have any regrets on November 3rd. Don’t look back and wish that you had voted don’t look back and wish that you had volunteered, but you never got around to it. Sit down on your couch, watch election returns roll in, and don’t have any regrets.

Schell
If you don’t have one already, make sure you have a plan for when and how you’ll vote. Check with your local election officials or visit IWillVote.com to see the options and requirements for your state. And to learn more about the Environmental Voter Project or to volunteer, head to EnvironmentalVoter.org.

Warm Regards is produced by me, Justin Schell. Joe Stormer creates our transcripts, and Katherine Peinhardt is our social media maven. Music for this episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions.

You can find a transcript of this episode, listen to previous episodes, and find links to subscribe via the podcast platform of your choice at WarmRegardsPodcast.com. Also, something that really helps more people learn about our show is if you could leave a quick review or rating, especially on Apple Podcasts.

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From all of us at Warm Regards, thanks for letting us into your head.

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A podcast about life on the warming planet. Hosted by @JacquelynGill and @DrRamBio. Produced by @612to651

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