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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2004
Table of Contents
Wild & Whitewashed
Interview: Restaurateur Alice Waters
Who Grows Your Food? (And Why It Matters)
A Tale of Two Immigrants
Let's Talk
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
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Sierra Magazine
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Ways & Means: Top Ten Reasons to Vote
Friends don't let friends sit this one out
by Carl Pope

This column may have the shortest shelf life of any I have ever written. If you read it after November 2, election day, it will be too late. But given the stakes, I'm willing to risk early obsolescence.

In places like Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Zimbabwe, people risk their lives to cast ballots. Here in the United States, in the midst of a hotly contested election, experts predict a big increase in voter turnout,up to 56 percent-a level that in most parts of the world would be considered scandalously low. (In 1999, voter turnout in war-torn East Timor was 98.6 percent.)

My San Francisco dry cleaner is taking an extreme approach to this problem. Donald is in his mid-40s, from Hong Kong, and very upset about the direction this country is going. "We've got to get everyone to vote this year," he says. "Here's what I'm doing. I've got a bunch of friends. This country has been good to them, but they don't vote. We play poker every week, and last night I pointed to each of them and said, 'Here's what's happening on election day. I'm coming by your house before work, and I'm taking you to the polls. We've been friends for 20 years. But if you don't vote this year, we're not friends anymore.' "

While you may not be willing to go as far as Donald, you can still reach out to infrequent environmental voters. Research shows that most people who don't vote tell themselves (and the pollsters) that they are going to vote this year, and that they have done so in past elections (even though the registrar's records tell a different story).

Deliberate nonvoters are rare, but there are a great many infrequent voters, most of whom intend to get to the polls, but don't make it for one reason or another. Research also shows that the way to motivate them is to make personal contact, at least twice, in the run-up to election day. So get out your PTA roster or Christmas card list and get busy on the phone. If you run out of reasons of your own to convince them, here are some other approaches you might try:


  1. You're the boss. Believe it or not, politicians work for us. If you don't participate in the hiring process by voting, you can't complain about their job performance later.

  2. Be on the right side of history. For more than a century, we've made the environment cleaner each year. Don't start backsliding on our legacy of progress now.

  3. Do it for Mama. Your mother probably taught you to pick up after yourself. But last September, the Superfund was deliberately allowed to run out of money, letting polluters off the hook while sticking taxpayers with the cleanup. Vote for politicians who will make polluters clean up their messes.

  4. Network with neighbors. The more people who turn out to vote, the longer the lines at the polls, the more time you'll have to socialize. This could be your chance to cadge a cutting from a prize garden, or chat up that cute new neighbor.

  5. They can't ignore you. Millions of people have written to the Forest Service, objecting to its plans to sell off the national forests to logging, mining, and grazing interests. Rather than sift through all the complaints before dismissing them, the agency even suggested it might start ignoring mass e-mails, postcards, and petitions. While that idea was shot down, the public comment that really counts is your vote.

  6. Learn from experience. In 1973, OPEC's embargo reminded us not to rely on imported oil. In 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini warned us again. In 1999, it was Saddam Hussein. In 2003, we went to war in Iraq, and we're still getting 63 percent of our oil from abroad. Vote for a candidate who believes in new energy technologies, efficiency, and renewables.

  7. Ruin a campaign consultant's day. The real aim of those distracting, misleading, and negative political ads is not to make you vote for someone, but to make you so disgusted with politics that you'll stay home altogether. Spoil their cynical scheme by voting on the issues that matter.

  8. Feel like a fat cat. The politicians and parties are probably going to spend $2 billion on this year's election, with most of the money aimed at about 5 million swing voters. That adds up to $400 a vote. So if you get five friends who wouldn't otherwise have voted to the polls, you're contributing the equivalent of $2,000-the max even a fat cat can give to a federal candidate.

  9. If someone is trying to steal your vote, it must be valuable. In Florida, efforts are again being made to suppress the African-American vote, and many states are using unreliable electronic voting machines. Refuse to be intimidated, and if your voting machines don't keep a paper trail, vote by paper absentee ballot.

  10. Friends stick together. For more than a hundred years, Sierra Club members have been fighting for John Muir's mountains, the Great Lakes, and the eastern forests; for grizzlies, wolves, and desert tortoises; for clean air and water. This year, everything we've struggled for over the past century is at stake. You can save it with your vote.

Carl Pope is the Sierra Club's executive director. He is the author, with Sierra senior editor Paul Rauber, of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. E-mail

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