Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet
Raising Awareness with Voter Education

In Chicago, Illinois Chapter Director Jack Darin was shopping for groceries after a tiring Saturday in which dozens of volunteers distributed thousands of Sierra Club voter guides. At the cash register, he noticed one on the counter, and he casually remarked on it. Whereupon the clerk said, "You should read this. I gave up voting years ago, but look here at what these f___ers are trying to do to us. I can't just let that happen, so I guess I have to get out and vote this year."

Such was the pervasive success of our voter education efforts this summer and fall -- we didn't just inform and educate, we broadened the Club's support base and in some cases even "created" voters by encouraging non-voters to take their concerns to the polls.

All told, in its effort to head off anti-environmental legislation, educate voters about the environmental positions of candidates and elect pro-environment candidates to office, the Club spent $7.5 million. The voter education component -- where the Club raised and spent $3 million -- took a variety of forms, from canoe excursions to bus tours to a door-to-door canvass in 30 cities to street theater. The Club distributed 1.3 million voter guides comparing congressional candidates' positions in 27 states. In addition, the Club and its allies distributed voter charts displaying the voting records of 49 state House delegations. Yard signs, doorhangers and bumperstickers to direct mail and newspaper ads -- we were everywhere, and it showed.

Two weeks before Election Day, thousands of volunteers organized by the Club in 29 cities walked their neighborhoods distributing over 500,000 voter guides. The other major outreach effort was a voter-guide mailing. Through a telephone survey, the Club identified about 10,000 environmentally sympathetic swing voters in each of 23 targeted areas.

Each of these voters received three different voter guides. Through this program, we sent out a total of 689,000 congressional voter guides. We also mailed or passed out an additional 175,000 presidential voter guides comparing the records of Clinton and Dole.

"Our goal was to change the politics on environmental issues in communities across the country," said Conservation Director Bruce Hamilton, "and through a remarkable combination of activities, we accomplished that."

Perhaps nowhere was that more true than in South Dakota, where Club-endorsed Rep. Tim Johnson (D) defeated anti-environmental incumbent Sen. Larry Pressler (R). The successful outreach and education activities of the past year not only catapulted the environment into a higher-profile issue there, said Club organizer Karen Fogas, but they "changed forever the way Club members in the state look at themselves and how the public perceives us."

Two years ago, the East River Group, which covers all of eastern South Dakota, had only three routinely active leaders among its 180 members and was on the verge of dissolution. "Sen. Pressler was able to paint the Club as the blackest black," said Fogas. "People shied away from us. We didn't even hold meetings."

This spring, however, the Club attracted more than 130 volunteers to distribute doorhangers in Sioux Falls -- a community with just 87 Club members. Then, over the summer, many of these newly recruited volunteers staffed tables at county fairs, visited college campuses and continued to educate the public about the importance of environmental and public health protections. By fall, the group delivered -- on foot and through the mail -- more than 50,000 voter guides comparing Pressler's and Johnson's votes on the environment.

South Dakotans were hungry for this information, said Fogas, and the outreach did more than expand the visibility of environmental issues. It boosted the respectability of the Club, nearly doubled the East River Group membership and is proving a catalyst for a new group in the Brookings area.

Elsewhere, voter education had an impact even where the Club-supported candidate lost. In Oklahoma, staff and volunteers were disappointed that incumbent freshman Rep. J.C. Watts (R) prevailed over Democratic challenger Ed Crocker in the state's 4th District, but were heartened by their success in elevating environmental awareness.

Chapter leader Mark Derichsweiler said that the education events focused the public's attention on the sharp contrast between Watts' votes to gut the Clean Water Act and lift restrictions on carcinogens and Crocker's support for maintaining existing safeguards. The chapter also gained new volunteers, strengthened the organization and forged new ties with labor unions and student groups.

Conservation Director Hamilton emphasized that voter education will continue to pay off when the new members of Congress open their legislative session in January. "They'll know we're watching. They'll know that the American people care about protecting the environment and that if they want to represent their constituents, they had better vote accordingly."

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