by Kyra Epstein
On a September day in arid Henderson, Nev., four people stood on a busy street corner passing out bottles of water. Was it a casino promotion? A bike race? No, it was the Sierra Club's Environmental Voter Education Campaign (EVEC) at work.
The bottles were a message to Rep. John Ensign (R) to improve his voting record on clean water. Chapter organizer Deanna White and volunteers Jane Feldman, Domingo Rios and Margaret Kolar handed out the water near a conference center where the Environmental Protection Agency and scientists from across the nation shared research findings about the effects of perchlorate, a chemical found in rocket fuel that taints local groundwater. Burma Shave-style signs leading up to their street corner read, "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know we need clean water!"
Feldman became involved in politics after White told her about Ensign's environmental voting record. She felt she needed to help get the word out: "Through the voter-education program here, I found a mechanism to launch me into the activist network."
Thousands of volunteers and 100 staffers work on the Club's EVEC program. Daniel J. Weiss, the Club's political director in Washington, D.C., said, "The goal of the program is not to tell the public how to vote, but to present records of candidates and urge people to contact their representatives about voting for the environment." Fact sheets provide information to voters so they can make informed decisions, and postcards encourage them to ask representatives for responsible action.
In Missouri, EVEC coordinator Rachel Locke gets citizens' attention with an 8-foot reproduction of Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond's (R) head. Bond has a record of voting against environmental legislation, so people can fill out postcards and encourage him to vote more responsibly. More than 200 postcards were dropped into Bond's plywood and chicken-wire head at a St. Louis Earth Day event.
Media coverage has been good. "If you counted the number of articles about Sen. Bond, the majority have been about the environment. Reporters know we're out here," said Locke.
Gimmicks aside, the cornerstone of a great voter-education campaign is skillful organization. In Washington, Regional Representative Julia Reitan and organizers Chase Davis and Rob Gala have it down to a science. They use ironing boards with specially designed banners as mobile booths outside of high-traffic stores in suburban Seattle. "It gives volunteers an official setup," said Reitan, who knows activists can sometimes feel uncomfortable approaching the public.
During the five days of a recent ironing-board campaign, residents signed 12,000 postcards to Sen. Patty Murray (D), encouraging her to continue voting to protect water quality and salmon, and to Rep. Linda Smith (R), urging her to stop opposing these protections.
Davis said the key to good results is getting large numbers of committed volunteers - they have more than 300. Everyone on his activist list receives a postcard announcing the Club's summer plans, a phone call during a month-long phone bank to get commitments, confirmation postcards and phone calls and a thank-you postcard. Volunteers need to know the results of the campaign and that their help was worthwhile - one postcard sent by Davis read, "10,000 thanks for the 10,000 postcards you helped us collect."
In many states, the Club is running voter education radio ads, such as one that plays "America the Beautiful" in the background and uses voting records to show how some candidates "make it harder to protect our spacious skies, shining seas and purple mountain majesty."
The Washington Post and the New York Times recently praised the Club's efforts to release these ads as early as April to heighten public awareness. In New York, where a fierce debate rages between environmentalists and Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R), Sierra Club radio ads garnered media coverage from newspapers in New York City, Syracuse and Albany.
Is it working? Weiss said it is. In 1996, the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters conducted an election- eve poll of 3,600 voters in nine districts or states where Club efforts made the environment a critical issue in the campaign. "The environment became the number one or two issue in those races," he said.
The message - whether it's in a bottle or on the radio - is being heard.
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