As the Green Party fights in court to stay on the ballot in key swing states less than 50 days before the election, many veteran environmental activists and climate scientists are taking an unprecedented step — pleading to a constituency that has long been key to the party’s electoral efforts to eschew casting a “protest vote” for the Greens this year and instead cast their ballots for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
More than 170 top environmental leaders, including the founder of Earth Day and other longtime activists, signed a letter arguing that the planetary stakes are simply too high to risk a third-party vote that could tip the presidential election in President Trump’s favor. They argue that it happened in 2000 and 2016, and say “pious gestures” at the polls this year could have “catastrophic results.”
“Twenty years ago, the Green Party snatched the White House from a climate-change leader and handed it to George W. Bush,” the letter states. “In Florida, no less than 97,488 progressive voters snubbed Al Gore for Ralph Nader, letting Bush win the state, and therefore the presidency, by 537 votes, or so the Supreme Court ruled.”
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In response, Green Party presidential nominee Howie Hawkins tells Truthout that the signatories are making a false assumption that Green Party presidential candidates Nader and Jill Stein were responsible for electing Bush and Trump, rather than voter suppression efforts and the Electoral College.
“The Greens didn’t do that,” says Hawkins, a retired Teamster who has run unsuccessfully for office 24 times. “We’ve been fighting that. We’ve been saying since before that 2000 election that we need to get rid of the Electoral College and have a presidential vote by a ranked-choice national popular vote.”
Further, the role of the environmental movement should be to make demands on every campaign equally, “not compromise, particularly for a candidate with such a feeble environmental record,” he says, referring to Biden.
Hawkins was the first politician to run on a Green New Deal platform as a candidate for governor of New York in 2010. At that time, the Green New Deal was a reconstruction program in response to the Great Recession, he says.
This year his campaign is calling for the U.S. to reach zero greenhouse emissions and 100 percent clean energy by 2030, and is emphasizing nationalizing key sectors to more effectively plan and implement the party’s more far-reaching Green New Deal, similar to how many industries were nationalized during World War II.
Still, despite a decade of Green Party campaign efforts, momentum for a Green New Deal didn’t gain serious traction until 2018, when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined youth activists with the Sunrise Movement in occupying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand a Green New Deal that would ensure a just transition to 100 percent renewable energy in the U.S.
The next year, Sen. Bernie Sanders joined Representative Ocasio-Cortez in proposing legislation that would declare climate change a national and international emergency. He began campaigning on a Green New Deal, mainstreaming the policy as a serious platform position within the Democratic Party.
Since Sanders dropped out of the race, Sunrise Movement activists have worked to move Biden left on climate. In fact, Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan, which calls for 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 and sweeping infrastructure upgrades that would create millions of new jobs, incorporates several recommendations from a Biden-Sanders unity task force. The plan has won over many Sanders-wing environmentalists, including the Sunrise Movement, despite not embracing a Green New Deal or a national fracking ban.
While Biden’s plan would be the most sweeping set of environmental reforms in history if enacted, it still falls short of scientific guidelines that necessitate a managed decline of fossil fuel extraction to meet the timeline that the International Panel on Climate Change recommends: Global oil and gas production must fall 37 percent and 25 percent respectively this decade to avert planetary warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Drake Hunt is an 18-year-old Sunrise trainer and organizer in New York City who is working toward a Green New Deal for the city’s public housing and to elect Green New Deal proponents to City Council. He campaigned for progressives Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones during their successful congressional primary bids in June.
Hunt is deeply disillusioned with “neoliberal, establishment, corrupt sellout” Biden and the Democratic Party — so disillusioned, in fact, that he says he was planning to sit out his first election ever. That was until Trump’s responses to this year’s compounding crises — from the pandemic, to uprisings over police-perpetrated violence, and raging hurricanes and wildfires — made him realize that he faces a choice between climate catastrophe and authoritarianism; or a chance at a habitable planet and a stable democracy, as he puts it.
“You have to realize that [Trump] is standing in the way as we have a deadline to cut emissions as a planet,” Hunt says. “We have to move forward on ambitious climate policy, and what’s the best avenue to get there? Is it in a protest vote?”
Hunt supported the Green Party’s Stein in 2016 after Sanders failed to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination, and describes his ideology as in line with the Green Party’s. He even made a video in support of Stein at the time.
“I love the Green Party. I love everything that they stand for. If this were Europe and we had this parliamentary system where it wasn’t just this two-party infrastructure…. I’d vote Green Party, and I’m sure most people at Sunrise would as well,” Hunt says.
But it was seeing the power of youth activism as part of the Sunrise Movement that made him realize that an “army of young people” making calls and knocking on doors can swing elections and get progressives elected in the Democratic Party. “We have to be realistic about where we’re going to put our efforts,” Hunt says.
Biden’s revised climate plan is proof, he says, that the climate movement can extract concessions from his campaign, and in all likelihood, his potential administration. For Hunt, voting is just one part of a much larger effort to pressure Democrats into serious climate action. “It’s going to be up to us to actually hold [Biden’s] feet to the fire,” he says — and has no illusions about how difficult that might be.
If left unchecked, Hunt says, Biden may in all likelihood simply continue the same “neoliberal, milquetoast” policies of the Obama-Biden administration, which embraced an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy and oversaw a revolving door of energy advisers in the fossil fuel industry.
Even prior to last week’s letter, leading environmental activists have been increasingly vocal about the role they think the Green Party should play in this year’s election cycle. 350.org Co-Founder Bill McKibben, who also describes himself as a small-“g” green and likewise suggested he would vote Green if the U.S. had a parliamentary system, argued in The New Yorker back in April that the Greens, especially in crucial swing states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, should skip presidential campaigning and, instead, push state legislatures to put ranked-choice voting on their agendas.
While Hawkins acknowledged that he has no chance of winning, he rejected the “spoiler” argument, saying that the party is, in fact, working to push ranked-choice voting in more state legislatures. “If they’re worried about the center-left vote splitting and electing these right-wing [popular vote] losers, then go to ranked-choice voting. I mean, that’s a solution; to suppress the Green Party is not a solution,” he said.
Additionally, one of the reasons the Green Party runs presidential campaigns, Hawkins says, is to stay on ballot lines, since in most states, the presidential election often determines whether the party gets or keeps a ballot line in the first place. The ballot access issue has heated up in recent weeks as Democrats work to remove Hawkins and his running mate, Angela Walker, from the ballot in key battleground states.
Both Parties Accused of Suppression
The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled last week that Hawkins and Walker are ineligible to appear on the state ballot. The decision comes after the Wisconsin Elections Commission declined in late August to put the Green presidential ticket on the November ballot because the candidates’ signature petitions listed two different addresses for Walker. State election officials argued that the campaign failed to meet state requirements due to the discrepancy.
The state Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the case but instead concluded that the candidates’ delay in filing an appeal to the Elections Commission decision made it impossible to grant their motion without “confusion and undue damage” to the election system.
The court decision allowed state and local election officials to finalize the ballot and mail it out to the more than 1 million Wisconsin voters who have requested them ahead of the state and federal deadlines.
A similar issue is now playing out in Pennsylvania, where a Democratic legal challenge over whether the Green Party will appear on the ballot has delayed 67 counties from sending out mail-in ballots by their deadline. Democrats are citing the same procedural mistake over Walker’s change of address as a reason to remove Green ticket from the ballot.
It’s clear that Democrats would benefit from the Green Party’s disbarment. As the polling gap between Trump and Biden narrows, third-party votes could again prove crucial in tipping the presidential scales in both swing states. In 2016, Trump won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by margins that were smaller than the total votes for Stein.
In April of this year, an Emerson poll found that 51 percent of Sanders primary voters were considering opting for a third party. Experts caution however, that it remains unclear whether a third-party candidacy can swing the states’ elections this year. Further, they point out that not all of Stein’s supporters would have voted in 2016 had she not been in the race.
Hawkins says a minor procedural issue like the one that emerged in Wisconsin should not keep a political party off the ballot, and that the state’s ruling is a clear instance of voter suppression in an effort to expedite the mailing of ballots. The issue could have been resolved much earlier, Hawkins says — if the Wisconsin Election Commission had let the candidates’ present their evidence.
“They were determined to keep us off no matter what the evidence was. [The decision] had nothing to do with justice or anything. I think they were getting embarrassed since this was becoming national news,” Hawkins said. “This is the Democrats and Republicans fighting over this. We’re like pawns on their chess board, and it’s infuriating.”
Still, the Green Party itself has come under fire for working with Trump supporters to file its legal claim before the state Supreme Court. Attorneys from the Milwaukee-based von Briesen & Roper law firm, which often represents Wisconsin Republicans, filed the Green Party’s petition.
A Republican member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission told The Washington Post that he suggested the firm to the Greens. Hawkins denied that, telling Truthout that his campaign manager Googled the firm because others had turned them down.
Moreover, the Green Party has been accused of the same kind of suppression efforts that it charges the Democrats with engaging in. Some candidates that ran in the Green Party’s primary allege that the primary was rigged and that the party apparatus forced them out of the race.
The party’s primary recognition process requires candidates to meet certain signature and donation thresholds, as well as approval from the party’s Presidential Campaign Support Committee, which some candidates say they can’t possibly meet without the resources and connections of the party’s old guard.
Five candidates released a joint letter in October calling on party officials to reform the primary process. They also called for Hawkins’s recognition to be rescinded because he was nominated by the Socialist Party USA, possibly violating Green Party rules.
“They say I’m the Green Party establishment; I’ve been the left wing of the Green Party and an eco-socialist since we began, and the old guard has wanted me out for a long time,” Hawkins told Truthout in response to the primary-rigging allegations. “The base of the party has moved to the left, and that’s why I was drafted and why I got the votes in the Green primaries…. I don’t know of any that were rigged in my favor.”
Ultimately, though, for disillusioned environmental activists like Hunt, electoral math is just as unforgiving as the math on climate change. For him, the equation comes down to what is actually going to create the greatest amount of change for most people.
“You have to be completely honest about who is going to achieve power, and how you’re actually going to move any serious climate action forward,” he says.