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Great Lakes Article:

Environmentally Speaking - Does the environment get a vote?
By Tanya Cabala
White Lake Beacon (MI)
Published October 11th, 2004


With Election Day looming next month, where does the environment fall on the list of priorities people consider in the voting booth?

A look at opinion polls indicates the issue would appear to weigh heavily. Polls in the mid-1990s reported that two-thirds of Americans considered themselves to be environmentalists. Other polls show that a majority supports stronger environmental regulations, even at the risk of slowing economic growth.

Does this mean that the environment is a voting issue?

The answer isn't as clear as the polls would suggest. Environmental issues are often priorities in state elections or at the local level. A good example is the White Lake community, where the environment unquestionably makes the priority list for local and state elections. It is less evident, however, at the national level. During the more than 50 years of the Gallup Poll, the environment as a voting issue registered higher than seven percent only once - in the early 1970s, during the heyday of the environmental movement. After the last presidential election, exit polling by Wirthlin Worldwide, an opinion research firm, showed that only about two percent of the voters made their decision primarily on environmental issues.

Why is this?

It could be that it's easier to see how issues such as the economy, health care, or the war in Iraq directly affect us. It's not as easy to see how the environment directly affects us. We drive to work inside a car. Spend the day working indoors. Drive home. Spend what's left of the day cooking supper, cleaning, paying bills, watching TV. Do we notice the seasons changing and what the sky looked like that day? Do we know what kind of trees are in our yard or in our neighborhood? Do we know where all the rivers and streams in our community are? Our lives are mostly indoors and that may be why we don't always have the environment in mind when we vote.

We also may not realize that the environment needs regular attention; not just when it is visibly in crisis. It wasn't until the Cuyahoga River in Ohio burst into flames spontaneously because of pollution and the Great Lakes were visibly 'dirty' in the late 1960s, that the need for better laws was recognized. The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were the result and even though the environment benefited, there are still serious problems that don't appear as visible or urgent.

Finally, because of the public's concern for the environment, many politicians represent themselves as environmental candidates. Because of this, voters may think there is no difference between who they vote for in regard to environmental policies, so they decide who to vote for based on other issues. But, politicians do have differing levels of knowledge of environmental issues and divergent ideas on the best ways to protect the environment and there are definite choices to be made.

Our elected leaders can play a large role in ensuring clean water and air, and protection for nature and wildlife, from the local and state level up to Congress, and the President. Local officials can create strong master land use plans and enact zoning to guide growth to protect sensitive natural areas and water resources. They can also be vocal advocates for a clean environment and help set the tone for a community. Former Whitehall Mayor Norm Ullman spoke regularly and effectively of the need for local environmental protection during his tenure. (And he still does in his role as a citizen.)

State elected leaders can alter existing laws, and support or block new environmental legislation. They also control the purse strings of every state agency, including the Department of Environmental Quality. Reduce the budget and there may not be enough staff to hold the public hearings that citizens request or to enforce environmental laws properly.
Congress controls the budget of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and can, along with the President, make drastic changes to the way in which key environmental laws are carried out.

It's likely that we will always be faced with important, pressing issues. If we truly value the environment as polls seem to indicate, however, it should be on our minds in the voting booth every election.

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