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Razor-Thin Wins

Close races show that every vote counts.

By Chris Bryant

In Michigan’s eighth congressional district in 2000, voters had to choose between candidates as different as water and oil. Vying for the open House seat were Democrat Dianne Byrum, who scored 100 percent from the national group Clean Water Action for her votes in the state legislature, and Republican Mike Rogers, who earned a goose egg for his.

"That race was incredibly frustrating," says Dan Farough, political director of the Sierra Club’s Mackinac Chapter. Environmentalists had helped underdog Byrum nearly catch Rogers a few weeks before the election—the chapter alone has some 20,000 members, about 90 percent of whom are registered to vote. But in the end Rogers won by 111 votes. A small increase in the turnout of the chapter’s voters could have put an eco-friendly face in Congress.

Since his victory, Rogers has voted against fuel economy and for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Overall, he’s earned a dismal 7 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters, and problems in Michigan, such as pollution from factory farms, have worsened. "Michigan has recently become one of the bottom-tier states in terms of environmental protection," Farough says.

Perhaps unaware of such dire consequences, most Americans don’t vote, particularly in off-year elections like the one coming up in November. For these races, turnout percentages are generally in the mid-30s. Consequently, a small bloc of votes—sometimes fewer than the number of people in a local Sierra Club group—can make a big difference for the environment.

Everyone knows about the agonizing duel between Al Gore and George Bush in 2000. A tiny fraction of the populace also swung a cliffhanger Senate race in Washington State, with a happier ending. Incumbent Senator Slade Gorton (R), on the League of Conservation Voters’ "Dirty Dozen" list in 2000, was challenged by a pro-environment former congresswoman, Maria Cantwell (D). Gorton was notorious for sneaking a rider promoting a gold mine in eastern Washington into a successful emergency spending bill that included funds for the war in Kosovo. Nearly a month after the election, a recount was complete. Hard work by environmentalists and other progressive groups helped Cantwell win by less than 3,000 ballots out of 2.5 million cast. She now sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and consistently votes green.

In Nevada, Democratic senator Harry Reid is a veteran of close elections. He lost his first Senate bid, in 1974, by only 600 votes. He went on to win in 1986 and 1992, with a bit of breathing room, 5 and 11 percent margins respectively. But in 1998, a mere 400 votes gave him the edge, enabling him to continue his work to protect water and wildlands and lead the challenge against a federal plan to truck nuclear waste from all over the country to Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

In local elections, turnout is even more abysmal than in statewide races—in the teens, or even single digits—and individual voters become all the more important. In Wisconsin’s Dane County, for instance, it took only a 13-vote margin to win Progressive Party candidate Al Matano a seat on the board of supervisors in 2000. One of his duties in this fast-growing county is to balance the need for housing with the protection of farmland. "We lose a hundred acres of farmland a week," says fellow supervisor (and Sierra Club staffer) Brett Hulsey. With Matano elected, the board now has a majority of one vote when it comes to protecting the environment.

Close elections haven’t been as kind to Lake County, in the northeastern corner of Illinois. Half of the state’s endangered or threatened species are found in the region’s isolated patches of wetland and prairie, under pressure from the county’s rapidly increasing human population. In the spring of 2002, Republican smart-growth advocate Larry Leafblad lost his seat on the county board in the primary by 17 votes. The man who won supports a multilane toll road through the county’s most pristine wetlands. A year earlier, George Bell, another Republican champion of smart growth and ecosystem health, lost a primary by only 16 votes.

Back in Michigan, Representative Rogers is now sitting pretty, despite having garnered only 111 more votes than his opponent in the last election. Protected through redistricting, he is expected to win handily in 2002. Michigan nonvoters—and nonvoters everywhere—who care about the health of the land, or just enjoy clean air and water, might take a long look in the mirror. Their vote matters.

Chris Bryant is a writer living in Missoula, Montana.

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