An Interview with Nathaniel Stinnett, Founder of the Environmental Voter Project
by Aaron Dorman
THE ENVIRONMENTAL Voter Project was founded in 2015 by Boston-based political campaign adviser Nathaniel Stinnett, with the aim of identifying citizens for whom environmental issues are high-priority and increasing their turnout in national, state, and local elections. "[P]olls also show that tens of millions of Americans strongly prioritize progressive environmental policies," says the organization's website. "[T]he real problem is that these people do not vote. Indeed, even in recent nationwide elections, over 15 million individually identifiable environmentalists have stayed at home on Election Day." The organization is now active in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Nevada and Pennsylvania — states likely to be important battlegrounds in the 2018 midterm elections.
Jewish Currents' Aaron Dorman sat down with Stinnett for this conversation in March.
AARON DORMAN: I’ve gone to so many environmental gatherings at which people are trying to figure out what to do with the Trump Administration in charge, when every advance we've made seems to be hitting a brick wall. Your idea that there are people who care about the environment who need to be organized to register and vote points to a positive campaign that people can actually pursue.
NATHANIEL STINNETT: That’s right! It is an objectively great opportunity -- it’s like showing up to a basketball game and realizing you have a whole team of superstars just sitting in the stands, and all you need to do is throw a uniform on them and get them in the game, and you’ll win! We’ve already won the battle for people’s hearts and minds. The problem is we’re just not showing up when it counts, which is on Election Day.
I do honestly believe that this is really, really good news. Changing people’s minds is so hard and so expensive, but we’ve already changed enough minds. That doesn’t mean we stop trying to change people’s minds, that’s absolutely an important endeavor, but there are enough already persuaded climate activists and potential climate voters that if we just fix our turnout problem and start showing up to votey, politicians will follow, because one thing you can depend on politicians wanting to do is win elections. They will go where the votes are.
AD: But if environmentalists do vote, why won’t Democrats or Republicans say: “Okay, these guys are in the bag, I don’t have to campaign on this any more.” What will hold the candidates' feet to the fire? How can we be confident that politicians will take environmental issues more seriously?
NS: That’s a great question. I think it’s really important to answer it by explaining the process that pretty much every campaign goes through. The first decision any campaign makes is who are we going to talk to and who are we not going to talk to. They make that decision by looking at public voter files.
In the U.S., as we all learn, growing up, that our ballot is secret. But whether we vote or not is public information. I could go to your city hall and pull your voter file and see which elections you voted in and which elections you didn't. So let’s say someone is running for governor. The first thing their campaign is going to do is look at all the registered voters in the state and figure out, from their previous voting histories, who is likely to vote in a gubernatorial election and who isn’t. And they are only going to then poll the people who are likely to vote. They are only going to communicate with the people who are likely to vote. They are only going to spend their money trying to appeal to the people who are likely to vote.
This shouldn’t surprise us, right? We wouldn’t expect Starbucks to care about us if we don’t drink coffee. Why the hell would politicians care about us if we don’t vote? So if we get more and more environmentalists into that small population that politicians actually care about, they definitely will not be take for granted, because they are the only people who determine whether a politicians wins or loses.
Right now, voters do not prioritize climate change and other environmental issues, and so Donald Trump didn’t feel like he had to mention climate change even once in his State of the Union address -- but you know what? Joe Kennedy didn’t mention climate change once in the Democratic response that he delivered, either.
And it’s not because Kennedy doesn’t care about climate change, it’s because every politician has a limited amount of political capital to spend, and even when we elect the right people, it’s really hard to expect them to spend their political capital on an issue that voters don’t prioritize. So I would try to flip your question on its head, I would say, yes its important that we elect the right people, but no matter whom we elect, they are not going to lead on environmental issues unless environmentalists start voting.
AD: Who are the environmental non-voters you’re targeting? My impression from going over the EVP's work is that a lot of them poor, or minority members. Are you worried that in certain states they will face voter suppression issues?
NS: The typical stereotype -- that people who care about climate change and the environment are white, wealthy yuppies -- no longer applies, at least not to the extent that it used to. Research shows that African Americans and Latinos in pretty much every state across the country tend to care more about climate change and environmental issues than Caucasians do. And our target group is not uniformly young, although certainly, young people tend to care about these issues more than old people. And you’re right that this population tends to be poorer than the average voter. So, yes! Voter suppression laws absolutely are a worry, and I think voter access issues are environmental issues. Our constituency tend to be affected most by climate change, affected most by clean air and water pollution issues -- and they also tend to be the populations who have laws that keep them from voting in certain states. Voter suppression is absolutely something that the environmental community needs to take seriously, because in order for our constituency to show up at the polls in force, they need to usually jump more barriers to get into the polling place than most people do.
There are a lot of great groups working very hard on voter access laws. We don’t have the resources to do that. We have a very specific focus on identifying environmentalists who don’t vote and then trying to increase their likelihood of voting. We have to fight voter suppression, but even with those obstacles, we can still flood the polls, still dramatically increase turnout across the board in every state.
I mean, most people, when they sit and think about the enormity of climate change, or the enormity of plastic pollution in our oceans, or other huge problems, they feel overwhelmed. But voting? Voting is a very simple thing that each of us can do, even in states that try to make it really hard. Voting is a more valuable tool to put in your arsenal than recycling or riding your bike to work or changing your eating habits, largely because it takes the average American twenty minutes to vote from the time they leave their door to the time they cast their ballot.
AD: Do environmentally motivated people vote for environmentally good candidates?
NS: My answer might be somewhat unsatisfying, but at least it will be honest. The truth is we don’t know. Nobody knows. Even with exit polling, voting remains secret. But what we can tell you is this: The people we are mobilizing to go to the polls list climate change and other environmental issues as their number one or number two priority.
The second thing I want to mention is this: Yes, elections matter, deeply and profoundly, but policy is not made on Election Day. Policies are made in the intervening weeks and months and years between elections. And what drives policy is the polling of likely voters. As you and I are having this conversation right now, there are probably a hundred polls being conducted all around the country, asking people what issues they care about so that everybody who is running for Congress or governor in November can figure out how to direct their messages to likely voters.
They are not polling all American adults. They are not polling all registered voters. They are not even polling everybody who voted in the 2016 presidential election. They are ONLY polling the people whose public voting histories show that they are likely to vote in this November’s midterm election. So it’s so important to get these environmentalists to vote simply because it puts them into that small group of people that drives policy every single day of the year.
Simply by voting, these people become first-class citizens. They become part of this really small group that gets polled and analyzed and helps to drive policy at the local state and federal level. Even if you go into the polling place and write your dog’s name on the ballot, it’s still important, because you would become part of this small select population that drives policy. So if we get millions of environmentalists to become part of this small group of "super-voters," believe me, politicians will start being environmental leaders, or they won’t get reelected. It’s that simple.
Local elections are very important. I’d go so far as to say big-city mayors could save our planet, if there were real voter demand for environmental leadership. With little tweaks to the zoning codes and building codes and parking regulations, mayors could save the planet. But at best, in some mayoral elections, you have 10 to 15 percent voter turnout, and those are mostly voters who care primarily about potholes and school budgets. If environmentalists just nudged their turnout levels a little higher, we could flood the electorate and make a real difference.
AD: Is there a way to get people who already vote to give higher priority to environmental issues, or do you feel it to be a more useful strategy to target non-voters who are environmentally committed?
NS: We don’t try to persuade people to care more about the environment, but I’m not saying that's unimportant or not worthwhile -- a lot of very talented organizations are working at persuading people to care more about climate change and care more about environmental issues. But it is hard and expensive, especially in an increasingly "post-fact" society, to persuade anybody of anything. So we think it’s much more efficient to find people who are already persuaded but aren’t voting, and focus on changing their habits. We’re in the habit-changing business, not mind- changing business.
There are an enormous number of non-voting environmentalists. We’ve identified 15.78 million already registered to vote -- environmentalists who stayed at home and did not vote during the 2014 midterms. Only 83 million people voted in that election, so 15.78 million could make a huge difference.
Our hope is that after four or five years of work in any given state, we can make climate change and other environmental issues a top-three priority for voters. We think we can absolutely achieve that in the states where we are mobilizing voters: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Massachuetts, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. The average voter will actually have between three and five elections in which he or she can vote each year, so over the course of four years, we might contact someone twenty times for twenty different elections. We can really change the landscape.
We also offer a service to people in all fifty states: If they go to our website and sign a pledge to vote in every election and always prioritize environmental issue, we will send them email reminders and texts before every election. It’s just a free service: You may live in Alaska, but we will remind you of your city council races.
We ran a year-long test of our concept from the fall of 2015 to the fall of 2016 in Massachusetts, and we got such amazing results, which enabled us to expand into Georgia in the spring of 2017 and into Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania in the fall of 2017. We learned that the tools that we are using are really effective in getting environmentalists to vote. We also learned that we are much better at getting already-registered non voters to start voting than at finding not yet registered environmentalists and getting them to register.
AD: What got you interested in environmental issues? Or in politics, for that matter?
NS: For about ten years, I worked as a lawyer and as a chief strategist and campaign manager for a whole bunch of campaigns, big and small, from gubernatorial all the way down to city council and state rep races. And I always cared very deeply about climate change and environmental issues, but I was frustrated to find that when you poll likely voters in any election, climate change and other environmental issues are almost always at the bottom of that list. I’ve always worked with really great environmental candidates, and we were always really frustrated, because we looked at our polling, and saw, gosh, these voters just don’t prioritize these issues. It would be suicidal to spend all of our time talking about something that voters don’t care about.
At the very end of 2013, after I had finished working on a mayoral campaign, I was looking at some polling data with a friend of mine, who’s a pollster, and I realized something that totally blew my mind: that the reason so few voters prioritize climate change and the environment is NOT because too few Americans prioritize climate change and the environment, but because too few environmentalists vote. We have less of a persuasion problem than a turnout problem.
I’m not going to claim it was an easy decision to not go back to my law firm or to stop running political campaigns. My wife and I had our first child on the way, and like any new parents, we were reassessing what was important in our lives. But we never looked back, and I’m so glad to be doing this, not just because we’re succeeding, but because we live in some really scary times. It’s really wonderful to be able to fight every day for something that's so important. If I weren’t doing this work, I'd be in the closet crying every day. Everybody is looking for opportunities to have an impact. So I’m very glad that we’re doing the work we're doing.
Aaron Dorman is a freelance writer/reporter focusing on environmental and science communication. He recently appeared here with an article, “#Me, Too, Said Mother Earth.”