Planning Magazine

Local Support for Environmental Reform Grows

The 2021 elections signal mounting approval of progressive environmental legislation and climate action.

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Smoke belches from a plant in New York. Voters there last year added a new amendment to the state constitution: the right to a healthy environment. Photo by Ted Pink/Alamy.

Off-year elections in 2021 offered relatively few statewide ballot measures for voters to consider. But several measures addressed the environment and climate change, reflecting many of the past year's federal debates at a more local level. It's something we can expect to see more of, experts say.

"[These] are areas that voters, especially voters of color, seem to be the most open to for bolder reform," says Caroline Sánchez Avakian, director of strategic communications at the progressive nonprofit Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

Clean air and water

That held true in New York, where voters approved a measure that added a right to clean water, clean air, and a healthy environment to the state constitution. It was backed by environmental groups and put on the ballot after easily passing the legislature. The measure prevailed 69 percent to 31 percent — a sign of strength, even as several progressive ballot measures to broaden voting rights failed by wide margins.

"Having this right to clean air and clean water" would ensure "we are no longer overburdening our communities on the front lines with these facilities that are pumping out pollution and harming public health," Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, told The City.

The New York measure is similar to provisions already on the books in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Republicans and business groups generally opposed it, arguing that it could encourage lawsuits.

Avakian says she expects that progressive-oriented ballot measures like the environmental amendment might become more common in upcoming elections. According to research from the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, voters are willing to embrace reform when it comes to climate change and the environment, "in particular statewide fracking bans and the provision of environmental reparations," she says.

John G. Matsusaka, the executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, says that flurries of ballot measures usually become widespread if there's a specific, high-profile trigger.

"We generally see surges in certain issues in response to court rulings — such as eminent domain and same-sex marriage — or on issues where legislatures seem out of sync with voters and an override is required to get action, such as the minimum wage and marijuana legalization," Matsusaka says.

Some contention

In Maine, however, voters went the opposite direction on Question 1, which would effectively block a $1 billion electric transmission line in the state's rural Upper Kennebec Region. The ballot initiative targeted a project sought by Central Maine Power that would provide New England with renewable electricity generated by Canadian hydroelectric power.

Some environmental groups have opposed the project, which is already underway, but they were joined in opposition by energy companies that face added competition. Confusingly, a "yes" vote was to stop the project, while a "no" vote was to continue it. While opponents of the ballot measure, including Central Maine Power, spent three times as much as the measure's backers, voters chose to stop the project by a wide margin, 59 percent to 41 percent.

Despite the loss, backers of the line were undeterred, filing a lawsuit that argued that the measure was unconstitutional. The power corridor's sponsor "has already suggested its continued commitment to the project regardless of the outcome of the vote," says Jason Libby, a political observer in Augusta, the state capital. "It is possible that this divisive issue may continue to boost support for a consumer-owned utility, something Governor Janet Mills (D) already vetoed earlier this year," he says.

Louis Jacobson is a senior correspondent with PolitiFact and has been writing for Planning since 1994.