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Protecting Our Democracy Protects Our Environment

If our elections and democratic institutions aren’t protected, the planet doesn’t stand a chance.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

A decision from the PA Supreme Court on the Commonwealth’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) could come at any day. The decision will have far-reaching implications for the future of Pennsylvania’s efforts to combat climate change and invest in the burgeoning green energy economy

Many are unfamiliar with the structure of PA Supreme Court. It is composed of seven members who serve 10-year terms and must retire at the end of the calendar year in which they reach 75 years of age. 

Our state Supreme Court justices are also elected in partisan elections with no limits on campaign contributions, save for prohibitions against corporate donations.

The way in which we Pennsylvanians elect all of our judges – from local magisterial district judges to the justices of the PA Supreme Court – highlights the imperative to protect our democratic processes and preserve our right to vote.

The assault on voting rights and attacks intended to undermine confidence in our elections have been led by the likes of former President Donald Trump, State Senator Doug Mastriano (the Republican nominee for governor last year), and U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (R-York County), chairman of the far-right House Freedom Caucus. 

While many Republicans have embraced mail-in voting which came to Pennsylvania in 2020, there is still a concerted effort to exclude from the electoral process those living in communities disproportionately affected by environmental injustice. These Pennsylvanians, many of whom are Black and brown or low income, are the primary targets of proposals such as Voter ID, eliminating ballot drop boxes, curtailing the periods during which citizens can register to vote, and apply for and return an absentee or mail-in ballot, and permitting candidates to import and impose “poll watchers” from the opposite end of the state. 

READ: Pennsylvanians Must Reject Restrictive Voter ID Laws

More perniciously, far-right elements actively worked to undermine confidence in the results of both the 2020 and 2022 elections and intimidate election officials and administrators. In the wake of the 2020 election, more than 60 Republican state lawmakers, including then House Speaker Rep. Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), wrote the state’s congressional delegation requesting they reject electors for Joe Biden. Current Pennsylvania Secretary of State Al Schmidt, a Republican, told the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6th attack on the capitol that he received a barrage of death threats against him and his family because of his refusal to back Trump’s false fraud claims while a Philadelphia City Commissioner. 

That these acts are detrimental to our democratic processes is self-evident. Their malignant effect on our system of government and efforts to protect Pennsylvanians’ “right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment,” (Art. 1, Sec. 1) can mushroom exponentially given the impact our state courts can make on the policymaking process. 

The PA Supreme Court and its subordinate courts rule on every imaginable aspect of public policy. While Pennsylvania’s pending participation in RGGI is a high-profile case, the courts often make final decisions on public parks and land preservation, rules and statutes related to the protection of our water and air, and regulations related to fossil fuels and pipelines. As our Supreme Court justices and all state judges are popularly elected, protecting access to the ballot box takes on an entirely new dimension. 

There are concrete actions you can take to defend democracy in Pennsylvania.

First, make sure you vote and urge your family, friends and neighbors to vote! In 2021, just 31.7 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the state Supreme Court race according to statistics from the PA Department of State. 

Second, contact your legislators to urge them to oppose anti-democracy policies. Don’t know who they are? Visit the PA General Assembly’s website, legis.state.pa.us, and use the “Find My Legislator” tool on the left side of the page.

READ: Bucks County Changemaker Interview With Conservation Voters Of PA’s Miah Hornyak 

Third, consider running for local office like township supervisor or school board. The more pro-environment, pro-democracy officials at every level of government there are, the less likely state legislators and members of Congress will attempt to curtail voting rights and ballot access. 

It has been said that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Only by remaining vigilant will we ensure the complementary priorities of protecting our environment and our democracy are achieved.

Support progressive, independent media.

Molly Parzen

Molly Parzen

Molly Parzen is Executive Director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, a statewide environmental advocacy group.

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