In the 2020 Elections, Voting Isn’t Enough

Our democracy is at risk. There is more work to do than going to the polls.

i will vote badge gotv

Helping others vote is critical this year.

Image: Seattle Municipal Archives. License: CC BY 2.0.
We at BuildingGreen have generally avoided taking political stands. I believe that regardless of our positions on fiscal policy or a range of social issues, we can—and must—come together to protect the ecological functions that support life as we know it on planet Earth.

Whether or not our apolitical position made sense in the past, it certainly doesn’t hold for this year’s presidential election in the United States. Unfortunately, the need to address climate change, which once had bipartisan support, is very much on the ballot. Even faced with multiple simultaneous natural disasters—forest fires, hurricanes—that are exacerbated by climate change, President Trump not only ignores the scientific consensus but actively undermines public trust in it. His behavior is so extreme that the editorial board of Scientific American, which had never endorsed a candidate in its 175-year history, has come out strongly in favor of Joe Biden.

This administration hasn’t merely stymied efforts to address the U.S.’s impacts on climate change. Its posture regarding international cooperation and multilateral agreements is impeding efforts around the world. We fixed the hole in the ozone layer with unprecedented international collaboration in the 1980s and ’90s. Climate change efforts could be modeled on that success. But Trump is instead undermining those efforts with conspiracy theories about secret campaigns to create a restrictive world government.

Laws and policies affecting local and regional environmental issues are also at stake. The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and other landmark environmental regulations were passed under a Republican administration. Those laws, while far from perfect, have reduced pollution and ended disasters like urban rivers that regularly caught fire. The Trump Administration’s actions, however, are guided almost entirely by short-term economic considerations, at the expense of environmental protection and safety.

But sustainability isn’t just about ecosystems and the natural environment. This year, long-term struggles for racial justice have also exploded into mainstream consciousness, as the impacts of COVID-19 ravage the lives and livelihoods of Black people and those living in poverty. There are legitimate debates to be had about the roles of government and the private sector in promoting economic well-being for all. Well-meaning conservatives and liberals will continue to disagree on fiscal policy. But when basic justice and human rights are at stake, there is no excuse for inaction.

In the past, I would have said that the best response to these crises—at least for citizens in an election year—is to vote. And that’s still critical. But now we’re seeing our democracy itself at risk. Since the dismantling of protections set up under the Voting Rights Act, there has been a systematic erosion of access to voting for underserved communities. All this is complicated by the pandemic, which is putting a lot of pressure on our ability to vote by mail, and by the threat of challenges to valid votes based on unfounded scare tactics.

But even with voting and fair counting of ballots, it’s increasingly clear that our form of representative democracy is a far cry from its one-person, one-vote ideal. Thanks to the Electoral College system, Trump was elected president with 2.9 million fewer votes than Clinton. And the popular-vote-to-elected-results discrepancy in the Senate, which greatly favors rural states that are mostly white, is much larger.

In the short term, the only way to get representation in Washington that’s serious about protecting the planet and addressing racial injustice is to win with overwhelming margins, especially in swing states, to overcome the system’s inherent biases. That means everyone who cares about these issues has to not only vote themselves but also get proactive about making a difference in those states. Organizations like Vote Forward and Spread the Vote can help make that easy.

Longer term, getting past the stranglehold of our current two-party system would be a good start. Check out FairVote.org for info on ranked-choice voting and other strategies that can help with that.

Published September 24, 2020

Malin, N. (2020, September 24). In the 2020 Elections, Voting Isn’t Enough. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/2020-elections-voting-isn-t-enough

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September 24, 2020 - 1:33 pm

This fabulous article describes the Trump campaign to undermine credibility of the democratic voting process so that he could wrest control of the election even if he lost the electoral college. Check it out.


September 28, 2020 - 3:34 pm

Thank you for writing this Nadav! This is very helpful in motivating colleagues to not only get out and vote but do more! 

September 28, 2020 - 3:35 pm

Thank you so much for writing this Nadav! This is great help for motivating colleagues and COTE members to not only get out and vote but to get involved more!

September 28, 2020 - 3:48 pm

I'm heartened to see this well-argued case for voting Democratic. Much of the injustice we now face began when Al Gore -- who would have taken big steps to unite the world against global warming -- lost the Presidency to George W. Bush despite a clear popular vote majority. To me, that was a sign that democracy should be allowed to work. Ever since then, the Republican party has done more and more to undermine democracy, in order to cater to special interests who profit from global warming and who fear equal rights and justice. It is so important to right the ship, and -- even though I've been critical of the Democratic Party in the past -- voting in Democrats for the Presidency and both houses of Congress is the only way to have a change to fix everything that ails the US and the planet.

September 28, 2020 - 4:58 pm

Thank you Nadav for the thoughtful argument for voting Democratic in this election, and Maki and Raphael for the comments about the willingness of certain groups to resort to increasingly questionable methods to wrest election wins.  

In this election, I have become concerned that voting really may not be enough, that we may have to do more to ensure our votes are actually counted.  As a result, I have pledged with WagingNonviolence.org not to accept election results until all votes are counted. 

I think one of greatest difficulties I am having with this election is the realization that we may in fact be faced with a coup.  As Daniel Hunter describes in this article (https://wagingnonviolence.org/2020/09/10-things-you-need-to-know-to-stop...):

“We know it’s a coup if the government:

  • Stops counting votes;
  • Declares someone a winner who didn’t get the most votes; or
  • Allows someone to stay in power who didn’t win the election.”

If this is the case, we need to call it as such and act accordingly.  

September 29, 2020 - 9:32 am

Thank you, Nadav, for your op-ed. It reinforces the old addage "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem". We need to act together to preserve our democracy and to lead the world in protecting the ecological functions that support life as we know it on this planet. 

September 29, 2020 - 11:59 am

This article sparks a revelation for me - we know that climate is a non-political issue, so we need to stop treating it as one. It is a shame that the bi-polar structure of our current processes make this so hard to do. Voting should not be a political statement, and a working, healhty planet that we survive on and with in partnership should not be either. Thanks for this Nadav. 

September 29, 2020 - 4:27 pm

Thanks to you all for welcoming this piece and adding more depth and breadth to the ideas! This essay was a bit out of my comfort zone, but if ever there was a time to go there, this would be it, right? Now we just have to get to work! Get-out-the-vote letter party, anyone?

October 12, 2020 - 11:24 pm

Thank you for your editorial, Nadav! Yes, the climate crisis is on the ballot this election, as well as our democracy, and much, much else...

October 13, 2020 - 11:36 am

Building sustainably has nothing to do with politics and neither should your political views be voiced here, as I'll not voice mine.  As the moderator, I'm sure you can manufacture apparent universal agreement with your line, by simply deleting dissenting comments, but you'd do readers a greater service by staying on message about green building.

October 13, 2020 - 12:13 pm

Hi bg bg,

We're glad to include your perspective here, and wouldn't delete it or any others as long as they are civil. As I noted in the piece, we've hesitated to take political stands in the past because we really do appreciate that people of all political persuasions can be green builders and designers.

I'm sorry you disagree with my decision to break with that tradition here, and totally respect and appreciate you for saying so.


October 13, 2020 - 12:19 pm

I, personally, would prefer that sustainability not be a political issue, but that it instead be recognized as a core principle for all of our work. But the current political situation (and the 2-party system, quite frankly) makes it impossible to separate. Addressing climate (adaptation, mitigation, refugee issues, health, equity, and more) is recognized as serious and needed by one party, and not by another.  

One of the problems with architecture (and architects, perhaps) is that we live in a limited per-project mentality, pretending that nothing matters outside the 5' line from the building. Our designs are typically NOT properly infomed by Nature's systems, the "externalities" of fuel and transit, the context of the community, culture, or politics. 

And this article has helped me to see that this needs to change. Politicians and the policies they (and the heavy arm of various lobbying entities) set DIRECTLY affect our work. On top of that, our work can and should directly affect policy and those that set it.