Yale Climate Connections

Voters at the polls casting their ballots in Clark County Nevada

With the November election fast approaching, political campaigns across the country are targeting that most coveted of groups: “likely voters.” Once identified, most campaigns inundate them with mailers, phone calls, and advertisements.

But the Environmental Voter Project flips conventional campaign wisdom. The nonprofit goes after those with voting records so dismal they’re written off by other campaigns. The Environmental Voter Project’s founder and director Nathaniel Stinnett believes there’s gold in those “unlikely voter” rolls, and his organization has been mining them since 2015 to great success. According to a report the group published last year, the Environmental Voter Project has transformed nearly 1.5 million unlikely voters into consistent voters who have one thing in common: “climate change and the environment” tops their list of concerns.

Yale Climate Connection talked with Stinnett about his counterintuitive approach and the strategies anyone can use when talking with friends and family about the election.

The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Yale Climate Connections: How does the Environmental Voter Project talk about climate change to people who already care about the issue but who have poor voting records? 

Nathaniel Stinnett: The best way to get climate-concerned voters to the polls is not to talk about climate change. First, you have to recognize that human beings are social animals. The best way to turn nonvoters into new voters is to use nuanced forms of social pressure that make it seem like everybody who cares about climate change is voting this year. We want people to think that as someone who cares about the climate crisis, being a voter is a necessary part of their identity. If we can do that, then they will definitely cast a ballot this fall.

We’re all children of the Enlightenment and so we like to think that the best way to do anything is to rationally convince people of the importance of doing it. But look at beer commercials. They don’t try to convince you to buy their product because it has the best ingredients. They try to align their product with the type of person you want to be. And getting people to vote requires the same type of messaging.

At the Environmental Voter Project, we really only do two things. We identify people who care deeply about climate change but who aren’t voting. And then we turn them into better voters. We don’t need to change their mind about the climate crisis, we just need to change their behavior.

YCC: And how do you do that?

Stinnett: The first step is just basic peer pressure. We’ll call someone up on the phone and say, “Did you know that the last time there was an election 127 people on your block turned out to vote?” It’s like that juvenile crap you would hear on a fourth grade playground. But it works because when we think other people like us are doing something, we’re more likely to do it, too.

Here’s a slightly less juvenile example. We all want to be thought of as honest, trustworthy people. So, canvassers and people on our phone banks will talk to these nonvoting environmentalists and ask them, “Do you intend to vote early or on Election Day?” The way the question is presented makes it very hard for someone to say, “I’m not going to vote.” Behavioral scientists call this “choice architecture.” You build the question in such a way that you make it really hard for someone to say no.

Usually, someone’s going to say, “Oh, yeah, I’m gonna vote on Election Day.” And that’s like a trap closing on them. Because then we’re able to follow up right before the election and say, “Hey, I just wanted to remind you that a few weeks ago you told one of our canvassers that you’re going to vote on Election Day. That’s next Tuesday. Is that still your plan?” As an honest person, it’s important for you to follow through on your promises, right? So we’re equating the act of voting with whether they’re an honest person who keeps their promises or not. And that’s a much more powerful drive to action.

The key is you want to make them believe that real environmentalists vote: that if you care about the environment, you must be a voter. The most powerful way to get an environmentalist to vote is to equate the act of voting with being a good environmentalist.

YCC: I think a lot of people would say that your method is manipulative.

Stinnett: Of course it’s manipulative. If you’re trying to change someone’s behavior, you’re by definition trying to manipulate them.

YCC: Would this work for readers of Yale Climate Connections to talk to their friends and family?

Stinnett: Yeah. First, be loud and proud about being a voter — an environmental voter. In this age of social media, we all have social capital that we bring with us every day of our lives. All of our friends and family, and people on social media, are looking to us for cues as to what is acceptable behavior. If your friends know that you’re an environmentalist, they know that you care deeply about climate change, it’s very important for you to be public about the fact that you’re voting and that you’re voting because you’re an environmentalist. That very public example that you set for your friends and peers is far more powerful than any magic combination of words is going to be.

The second thing is, don’t get caught in the trap of trying to convince people of the value of their one vote. That’s not a mathematical argument you’re going to win. Instead, you want to make it about what kind of person they want to be. Do they want to be a civically engaged environmentalist or one who’s letting the world pass them by? You want to make it about them. Because it’s not about voting, it’s about voters.

YCC: I live in Arizona and primarily report on the Southwest. Is there anything unique about this region that influences the Environmental Voter Project’s work here?

Stinnett: Definitely. We’ve identified 230,000 Arizonans for whom climate change is a top priority, yet they’re unlikely to vote this fall. That’s a big number in a state where 10,000 votes decided the last presidential election. The group we’re targeting are people who, if you shake them awake at night, they’re going to scream “Climate change!” This is their No. 1 priority, and they’re already registered to vote. Yet when we look at their public voting history, we see that they didn’t vote in the last presidential election or any election since then. They just need a turnout intervention. They just need their behavior to change, not their minds or opinions. That’s just a huge political opportunity for those of us in the climate movement.

YCC: Are there different approaches to creating super voters among environmentalists in different ethnic and racial communities? For example, the percentage of Arizonans who are Indigenous is more than twice that of the country as a whole.

Stinnett: I should explain first that there are obviously a dozen different ways that you can define “environmentalist.” We only target people who are likely to list climate or some other environmental issue as their No. 1 priority over all others. And if you use that definition, the target group is disproportionately young, disproportionately people of color, and disproportionately lower income.

A problem specific to your area is that many Native Americans don’t have mail addresses. So it’s very hard to do a lot of direct mail. But we also know that it’s really important to communicate with Native Americans in Arizona. Just 2% of registered voters in Arizona are Native Americans, but 6.6% of our target population in the state is Indigenous. What that means is that we need to go big and spend a whole lot more. So we allocate more resources to reach out to them.

YCC: You said your working definition of “environmentalist” is disproportionately people of color. What other challenges are there for reaching that demographic?

Stinnett: People in the climate movement often don’t think about voter suppression being an issue that impacts us, but it absolutely does. If a government entity is trying to make it harder for someone to vote, chances are they are targeting either people of color, young people, or lower-income people. And that right there is the beating heart of the modern climate movement. And so a big challenge that we face is helping them overcome voter suppression efforts. Also, a history of voter suppression has convinced a lot of people that voting is a lot harder for them than it actually is. And so one thing that’s particularly challenging is we need to overcome an extra level of hesitation about voting.

YCC: How do you deal with that obstacle?

Stinnett: A lot of it is in our messaging. Literally just letting people know some basic information that might change their views on how hard it is to vote. So we might say something like, ”Did you know that it takes the average Arizonan 14 minutes to vote?” I don’t know the exact number of minutes off the top of my head, but that’s the type of factual message that we use.

Here’s another example that applies to everyone in our target group. In 2020, Nevada passed a universal vote-by-mail law. Two years later we asked registered voters if the state had vote-by-mail and 81% of Nevadans said yes. Now, that sounds like a good number. But in Nevada, literally every single registered active voter gets mailed a ballot. That means that one out of five Nevadans had no idea that they were about to get a ballot in the mail. So we sent out what’s called “heads up” mail to all of our targeted voters. We said, “You’re about to get your ballot in the mail. Don’t throw it out. This is what it’s going to look like. This is when it’ll arrive. And when you get it, if you have questions, here’s the state office you should contact.”

YCC: A message I saw repeated on your website is: “It’s always Election Day for the EVP.” What does that mean?

Stinnett: When you’re in the behavior-changing business, repetition matters. No matter how clever we think we are, and no matter how much we test our messaging, the simple truth is, the more often you can talk to low-propensity voters, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to change their voting habits. EVP’s approach is not to hop from big election to big election. We try to identify all the low-propensity environmental voters in a state and then talk to them whenever they have an election, no matter how small. Even if it’s an election for library trustee, we’re going to use it as an opportunity to try to nudge them along to becoming a better voter. In 2024, we have already been active in 137 elections. Many of them, maybe even most of them, had nothing whatsoever to do with environmental policymaking. But they had everything to do with behavior change. Our thinking is: How dare we let an election pass us by without using it as a way to try to nudge these people into becoming habitual voters?

Here’s why. Let’s say we get you to vote for the very first time in some little low-turnout City Council race. Two months later the record of you having voted shows up in public voter files. And then it’s like there’s a bright red beacon next to your name, saying, “Hey, look at me, I’m now a voter.” Everybody who’s running for senate or president sees that. All of a sudden, you’ve gone from someone who wasn’t on politicians’ radar to someone who is very, very important to them. Ultimately, we’re not focused on winning specific elections. We’re focused on changing the electorate. We want to make it so that anybody running for anything ends up looking at the voter file two, three years from now and says, “Holy moly, where did all these environmental voters come from?”

If we can get that to happen, you better believe politicians will start leading on climate. Nothing motivates a politician more than the prospect of winning or losing an election.

And I say that not to be cynical, but to recognize the brutal arithmetic of how democracy works. You either go where the votes are, or you don’t get to be a politician anymore. And so our job at EVP is to work year-round in every election to try to dramatically increase the number of environmentalists who vote. Ultimately, that’s going to drive whether politicians lead on climate. Just like climate policymaking never stops, our work to ensure that the climate movement has political power never stops.

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