The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently covered a devastating new report by several environmental justice experts, “Environmental Racism in St. Louis,” documenting stark disparities in health, economic opportunity and quality of life for black families in St. Louis.
Analyzing data across the city’s wards and ZIP codes, they find that black children are 2.4 times more likely to test positive for lead poisoning than white children; black children make approximately 10 times more emergency room visits for asthma-related illness; the city’s air pollution is disproportionately located in communities of color; black residents are less likely to have access to healthy foods; and economic distress is far higher in black-majority neighborhoods.
The link between environmental health and political participation is striking in St. Louis. For example, in the wards with the lowest levels of childhood lead poisoning rates, clustered in the southwest, average turnout of registered voters in 2018 was 68%. This compares to a turnout rate of just 50% where the highest level of poisoning occurs, nearly all of which are black-majority wards.
Currently, Missouri’s election laws make it more difficult to vote, compared to the national average, because of registration and eligibility requirements and limits on early voting. The Missouri Legislature has been embroiled in lawsuits over voter identification requirements since 2017. Last October, part of that law was ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court, but appeals are ongoing.
Even if it was easier to vote, the Legislature is one of the most gerrymandered in the country. The Republican Party has a massive advantage in the percentage of seats that they gain for their statewide vote share relative to Democrats. Part of this is due to Democratic, mostly African-American voters, being packed into urban St. Louis districts where their voting strength is diluted.
The 2018 citizen-led push to end partisan gerrymandering by limiting the power of lobbyists and restoring political equality through the “Clean Missouri” initiative (approved by 62% of voters) has met with various challenges in the Legislature. Republican leaders have done everything they can to retain their grip on power: Five resolutions have been introduced to repeal all or parts of the initiative. State Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, went so far as to downplay the importance of partisan fairness in the new redistricting process, which directly weakens the voting strength of African-Americans in uncompetitive districts. The Legislature reflects the gross distortion in representation that comes from manipulated election laws.
State Republican leaders even attempted to get African-American incumbent legislators to defect from a reform agenda, claiming that more political competition would be a threat to them. But if the Legislature was genuine about wanting to protect black voters, members would immediately drop their attempt to impose strict voter identification requirements, enact automatic voter registration and ensure early and easy access to the vote. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have already passed automatic voter registration, and more are expected to pass the reform soon.
Results from Oregon, the first state to implement automatic registration, show that both urban and rural citizens are more likely to vote when registration is automatic. Millions of new voters have been put on registration lists in California and other states that have implemented the policy. When coupled with same-day registration and early in-person voting, many of the formal barriers to voting can be effectively removed. Voter suppression and intimidation remain serious threats to the functioning of our democracy, but we must fight to abolish the legal barriers to voting that perpetuate political and social inequalities.
Those living the burden of environmental injustice must be empowered with the vote in order to protect themselves. Without political power, we are likely to see these sorts of health disparities and environmental injustices persist or even worsen. Meeting challenges of environmental racism requires supporting the empowerment of those who carry the burden, and that requires electoral reform.
Michael Latner is a senior fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, and is co-author of the 2016 book “Gerrymandering in America.”