The slow-moving coup threatens not just democracy but meaningful action on climate, extinction and environmental justice.

Voting rights march

When we talk about climate change, the extinction crisis and other environmental threats, the discussion usually focuses on science, national politics and corporate malfeasance.

We should also focus on local elections, disinformation and voter disenfranchisement.

Here in the United States, ongoing efforts at voter suppression and the slow-moving right-wing coup in the wake of the 2020 election are as bad as it gets for democracy. And consequently, for the planet.

You may not think of these as environmental problems, and they don’t get much press from environmental journalists or attention from activists and nonprofits. But the hard truth is that we’ll never achieve meaningful action against climate change, environmental injustice or the extinction crisis if we don’t also stay laser-focused on election reform to fight the GOP’s efforts to disenfranchise American voters.

With the 2022 and 2024 elections looming, the attempts to seize legislative control are steaming full speed ahead — from multiple directions. Fed by the baseless, repeatedly debunked Big Lie of voter fraud in the 2020 election, Republicans have passed restrictive voting legislation in Texas, Georgia and 17 other states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. They’ve also attacked and pushed out nonpartisan election officials around the country, gerrymandered their candidates into safe districts while discriminating against voters of color, performed sham “audits” (and called for more of them), and proposed legislation that would let them toss out election results if they don’t win.

Through it all, they’ve worked hard to discredit the election process and demonize progressive voters in ways that are literally tearing communities apart.

Let’s not forget how that already led to the Jan. 6 insurrection and ongoing threats of additional violence to follow.

This is repressive at best; at worst it’s the rise of authoritarian fascism. And it all serves to make our nation more beholden to demagogic leaders, violent extremists, and power-hungry billionaires and corporate interests that care little about people, let alone nature.

If you want to protect the planet, you need to pay attention to this on every level.

That starts just a few days from now, with the 2021 election, which includes notable gubernatorial and congressional contests in Virginia, New Jersey and other states, as well as a lot of seemingly smaller local races. From coast to coast, people are running for school boards on platforms of “getting politics out of the classroom” — code words for eliminating education about topics like racism and climate change (not to mention mask and vaccine mandates). You may not think school board elections matter, but they’ve become a major flashpoint around the country as Republicans hope to use them to “lay groundwork for the 2022 midterm elections,” according to a recent report in The New York Times. It’s easy to see that in action from the footage of screaming, threatening parents at school meetings around the country.

Will the proposed Freedom to Vote Act, John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act or any other version of voting-rights legislation currently stalled in Congress and the Senate solve these problems? Right now that’s hard to say, because not enough of us have made our voices heard.

As Timothy Snyder writes in his essential book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century, “Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning.”

Defend voting. Defend the planet.

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John R. Platt

is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His “Extinction Countdown” column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.