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
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
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.