Without Voting Rights There Are No Environmental Rights

Hundreds of people joined together today just outside the U.S. Capitol to celebrate the culmination of the historic "America's Journey for Justice," a 1,000-mile march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, D.C., which just like the original Selma march in 1965 has raised awareness of the newest legal hurdles some states have imposed to keep minorities from exercising their right to vote.

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Rep. John Conyers addresses the crowd (Photo Credit: Rocky Kistner)

Traveling through Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia, the march helps shine a spotlight on the sad reality that 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which helped end state-led discrimination at the ballot box, these states are turning back the clock and passing new hurdles to disenfranchise minorities. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder overturned one of the most important parts of the VRA - Title V - which made counties with a history of discriminatory practices submit changes to the federal government for approval. Almost immediately after the ruling, 40 of the 100 counties that had been subject to that title rushed to pass new laws intended to restrict voting access. That's appalling in this day and age.

If you've never had to overcome a hurdle to vote, it may be hard to understand the problem. What on the surface might seem like a small inconvenience can in reality be an obstacle impossible to overcome for minorities. How these laws are implemented can be much more restrictive then how they read on paper. Yet lawmakers in these counties and states seem to believe that they can put up these obstacles without any consequence. But there is.

That's where this march comes into play - because these communities and their friends and neighbors aren't going to sit idly by while a fundamental right to participate in American Democracy is taken away from them. The main message of the march is "Our lives, our votes, our jobs, and our schools matter," and their goal is to pass legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act to protect against modern day disenfranchisement. We couldn't agree more with their message and supports their goal.

At the Natural Resources Defense Council, we believe clean water, land and air are basic human rights for every American. Every day we fight to protect those rights. But if the right to vote is threatened so is our ability to defend the environment. Without a clean environment our lives and livelihoods are degraded and put at risk.

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Flaring at an oil refinery in a Los Angeles neighborhood. (Photo Credit: Jesse Marquez; earthjusctice.org)

These risks are even greater for the very same communities threatened by restrictions of voting rights as they are often the ones most affected by environmental problems. All Americans pay too high a price for polluted water, lands and air and the ravages of global climate change. Some of our people, though, bear a greater burden. Low-income families, communities of color and others are on the front lines of environmental degradation. Already, too many dirty power plants, industrial factories and other sources that pollute our air, water and land are located within these communities - amplifying environmental harms through proximity. With their ability to vote under siege, how will these communities prevent more dirty development in their backyards? How will they protect the health of their children?

On a larger scale, how will all of us stand up to the big money and big influence of big corporate polluters if such a large segment of Americans are shut out of our political process? Without protecting our voting rights we won't be able to protect our environmental rights.

So today NRDC was proud to stand with the heroic marchers from the Journey for Justice as they raised their voice about this injustice. We were proud to stand with members from the over 50 organizations that make up the Democracy Initiative. And we were proud to stand up to an injustice that threatens both our democracy and our environment.

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NRDC staff attending the rally (Photo Credit: Rocky Kistner)

About the Authors

Marc Boom

Director of Federal Affairs, Government Affairs

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