To Defend Public Health, Protect Voting Rights

Research Shows Voting Restrictions, Environmental Injustice Burden the Same Communities

Published Sep 20, 2018

WASHINGTON (October 2, 2018)—When voters are denied access to the polls, they have a harder time defending their own health and safety—adding burdens that further reduce their ability to vote. Protecting and expanding the right to participate will help raise the voices of communities.

These findings are explained in “Building a Healthy Democracy,” a fact sheet released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “Building a Healthy Democracy” is part of an ongoing study of the relationship between voting rights and environmental health risks.

“There’s a vicious cycle at work,” said Michael Latner, a political scientist who studies voting rights as a UCS Kendall Fellow. “The increasing number of hurdles being put in place, blocking people from voting are making it harder for disadvantaged communities to protect their own interests—which means they can’t push for stronger health and safety protections or hold their leaders accountable. Meanwhile, unhealthy environmental conditions are associated with lower voter turnout.”

Latner’s research looks at the increasing barriers to voting, including felon disenfranchisement and restrictive rules on both registration and the ability to get to the polls. These burdens fall harder on low-income communities and communities of color—the same communities who face the biggest threats from pollution exposure and environmental hazards.

“Restrictive electoral rules make it harder for people to vote, and that distorts our democracy,” said Latner. “That gives powerful interests who oppose environmental rules a bigger voice in the process. In turn, the poor health and socioeconomic distress that come with environmental injustice reduce voter turnout. If we’re going to improve public health, we need to give more people access to the tools of democracy.”

Latner points to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, as a perfect case study of the damage that can result from restrictions on democracy. As a result of a law passed by the state’s heavily gerrymandered legislature, Michigan’s governor was able to impose an “emergency manager” on Flint, bypassing local elected leaders. The state-appointed manager chose to switch Flint’s municipal water supply, ignoring local interests and exposing more than 100,000 Flint residents to unsafe drinking water.

Threats to voting rights have come from both state governments and federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder, which overturned part of the federal Voting Rights Act, opened the door for state legislatures and state governments to enact much more onerous restrictions on voting.

“If we want to solve environmental and health problems for at-risk communities, we have to strengthen democracy,” said Latner. “Making our elections more open and fair can lift up the voices of those who have too often been left out—and force the political system to address the discriminatory impacts of environmental threats.”