Over six years ago, Nathaniel Stinnett set out to rally an “army of environmental super voters” who would be capable of influencing U.S. lawmakers at all levels of government to pass legislation to cut emissions as effectively as the National Rifle Association dictates the nation’s gun laws.
The veteran campaign strategist’s Environmental Voter Project has contacted more than 8.7 million registered voters in 17 states who rarely if ever cast ballots, and has persuaded more than 1 million to pull the lever in each of their most recent federal, state and local elections since. And that’s only based on data that go through 2021; the nonpartisan group’s voter files aren’t yet updated to reflect the turnout from last year’s midterm election.
Stinnett’s organization is not taking a break in 2023, even though it’s not a national election year.
“We don’t take odd years off,” Stinnett said. “No one else is mobilizing these low-propensity voters in city council primaries and library trustee elections. We take habit formation very seriously, and the only way we get these great cumulative results is by paying attention to the boring elections.”
The next two states it’s expanding into are anything but dull: Louisiana and Nebraska.
“In Louisiana, it’s the home of ‘Cancer Alley’ and the belly of the fossil fuel industry beast,” Stinnett said, referring to the majority-Black industrial region with extraordinarily high rates of cancer and disease. “Every day, the fossil fuel industry is killing Americans with toxic air, poisoned water and climate change. And the industry’s biggest killing field is Louisiana.”
Bayou State voters directly elect the public service commissioners who regulate energy infrastructure. Later this year, they will choose a new governor in a flood-prone state with large amounts of oil drilling, gas refining and plastics production. And Stinnett’s group has identified 320,000 voters who rank climate change and the environment as top concerns in surveys but either haven’t voted at all or have rarely cast ballots since registering.
In Nebraska, voters pick the local regulators who oversee municipal utilities, decide who represents counties in key permitting decisions on pipeline and other infrastructure, and even select a lone elector who determines which presidential candidate wins one district of the Cornhusker State.
The Environmental Voter Project pinned down 66,000 green-leaning voters who typically skip midterms, 42,000 of whom tend to miss presidential elections, too. Of the latter group, 16,000 live in Nebraska’s toss-up 2nd Congressional District, which carries its own Electoral College vote and which now leans more Republican after last year’s redistricting.
“Nebraska is this really interesting place where harnessing the power of the state’s environmental electorate could yield big policy wins from the local level all the way up to the White House,” Stinnett said.
The organization already operates in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.
Since President Joe Biden signed the biggest climate-spending packages in history into law last year, regulators at state energy offices, municipal utilities and local planning boards will determine how and where the funding goes.
“Local governments get pretty wide discretionary authority on how to spend it, and there’s a lot of implementation work that needs to be done, ” said Caroline Spears, executive director of the nonprofit Climate Cabinet, which funds candidates for down-ballot regulatory seats who pledge to prioritize serious decarbonization. “It’s really important that we have great climate champions in office in those state legislatures, public service commission, utility boards and public power districts.”
Stinnett’s group uses consumer data and public election files to identify and target registered voters who care deeply about environmental issues but don’t usually cast ballots. The Environmental Voter Project then blasts those voters with traditional get-out-the-vote methods: phone calls, door-knocking by canvassers, mailers and digital advertisements.
“These are the people who are experiencing the worst of the fossil fuel industry. These are the people who have to live with toxic air and poisoned water every day.”
– Nathaniel Stinnett, Environmental Voter Project
The name of the group aside, the outreach messaging rarely mentions the environment. Instead, the Environmental Voter Project goes for good old-fashioned peer pressure, guilting nonvoters for their failure to exercise their rights or participate in elections in which their neighbors voted.
Stinnett’s files updated through 2021 show 1,030,000 of the voters his group has contacted were now “such consistent voters they voted in the most recent federal, state and local elections,” he said. “They have become super voters.”
It’s unlikely that the Environmental Voter Project can claim credit for activating all of those voters. But the organization has run randomized control trials on individual elections to study its own direct impact.
In Pennsylvania in 2020, one such study showed the group increased turnout among its targeted voters by 1.2 percentage points.
“1.2 is a big number in this business,” Stinnett said. “Ask Donald Trump how big a deal 1.2 is in Pennsylvania.”
In the U.S. Senate runoff in Georgia that determined which party held the upper chamber that year, the Environmental Voter Project spent $550,000 — a small sliver of the $1 billion pie spent on the special election — yet charted a nearly 1 percentage point increase in turnout.
Last year, the nonprofit’s efforts boosted turnout in the Alaska special election where Democrat Rep. Mary Peltola defeated former Gov. Sarah Palin by nearly 4 percentage points.
“It’s easier to increase turnout when baseline turnout is lower,” Stinnett said. “In lower-turnout elections where there is also less money being spent, we often get better results.”
Another finding from the past six years of shepherding climate-conscious citizens to the polls: “These environment-first registered voters are disproportionately people of color.”
That dynamic was “particularly stark in Louisiana,” Stinnett said.
The state’s vote files show there are about twice as many white registered voters (63%) as Black ones (31%). Among the low-propensity environmental voters Stinnett’s group has identified, 59% are Black and just 33% are white.
“It is abundantly clear that those seldom-voting and nonvoting Black environmentalists are in Cancer Alley,” Stinnett said. “These are the people who are experiencing the worst of the fossil fuel industry. These are the people who have to live with toxic air and poisoned water every day.”
In a December runoff election that the Environmental Voter Project played no part in, activist Davante Lewis defeated incumbent Lambert Boissiere, a conservative Democrat from a dynastic political family whom advocates accused of corruption. Spears, whose group backed Lewis, said his unlikely victory was a sign the climate movement can “push things forward” — and called Stinnett’s plans to expand the Environmental Voter Project into Louisiana and Nebraska “fundamentally really exciting.”
Stinnett said the benefits of his strategy have a longer horizon than just one election.
“The environmental movement has an enormous amount of latent political power here,” he said. “It is at once a tragedy and an opportunity.”