Black Voter Engagement
with Derrick Johnson, President and CEO of the NAACP
Feb 12, 2019
Democratic wins in the 2018 midterms were driven largely by African-American voters – particularly black women.
Derrick Johnson, President and CEO of the NAACP, joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss his organization’s research-based approach to increasing voter participation and engagement.
Anderson: According to the U.S. Elections Project, 49.2% of the eligible voting population voted in the November 2018 election. That´s the highest-recorded rate for a midterm election since 1914. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Tetiana Anderson. And while the numbers show improvement, how do you get even more people to become engaged in politics and vote? Well, joining me to talk about that is Derrick Johnson. He is the National President and CEO of the NAACP. And, Derrick, thank you so much for joining us.
Johnson: Thank you for having me.
Anderson: So, gains for the Democrats in the 2018 midterms, driven in large part by Black voters, by Black women, specifically. And I understand that the NAACP is taking some credit for that. Why is it? What did the organization do?
Johnson: Well, for the NAACP in my tenure, I´m focusing on specific engagement. Our goal is to increase the number of infrequent African-American voters in midterm and local elections. Those are African-American voters who vote during Presidential elections, not necessarily during midterm or local elections. So, we had a targeted program using data that was metrics driven where we identified those individuals, and we aggressively targeted those households.
Anderson: So, you mentioned infrequent African-American voters, and there´s been this sort of pervasive, historical myth about Black-voter apathy. Given what happened in 2018, is that something that can finally be put to bed at this point?
Johnson: It should be put to bed. If you think about the myth -- 49% of all Americans vote. That means half of this nation. A little bit better than half of this nation´s eligible voters did participate, so we need to look at election reforms to ensure that we have a more representative governance to make sure that more people participate. But more importantly, in order for us to make democracy work, people must be engaged.
Anderson: So, the midterms sort of also exposed some problems in the voting system, as well. African-Americans did get out to vote, but there were others that we noticed. What did you pick up on that you guys still need to work on in the lead up to 2020?
Johnson: Well, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was ruled unconstitutional several years ago by the Supreme Court. We recognized immediately that we had to aggressively engage our legal counsel and target certain lawsuits. Unfortunately, the Justice Department did not provide any support. They filed no Section 2 claims, so we filed lawsuits in Michigan, in Georgia, in Texas, and across the country.
Anderson: And you´re talking about lawsuits when it comes to voter suppression.
Johnson: Vote suppression methods -- to make sure they didn´t close certain precincts, making sure that individuals who registered to vote are put on the rolls, to make sure that the polling places who are open longer when, in fact, in Georgia, for example, they set up the equipment, but no one could vote for four hours ´cause they didn´t have the power strips. So, we had to file a lawsuit to ensure that everybody was able to cast a ballot. That is a system failure. And for the NAACP, we recognize that there is election reform needed immediately to ensure that all eligible voters can participate.
Anderson: And, so, this reform is needed immediately. We still have time before 2020. What are you guys doing institutionally to make sure that all the pieces are in place before people go to the polls in 2020?
Johnson: A couple of things. So, Congresswoman Marcia Fudge was appointed Special Chair of a committee that´s going to be going across the country taking in statements so we can build a record to reauthorize Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. NAACP, we´re going to partner with her office to make sure we get all the information in. Secondly, we´re working with the Chairman of Homeland Security in the House because elections are now a matter of national security. Anytime a foreign nation seeks to suppress Black votes to subvert democracy, it is a matter of national concern.
Anderson: And we´ve heard about that.
Johnson: We´ve heard about that over and over. It´s in the news, it´s part of the Mueller investigations, so at the NAACP, we´re working with this office to put in language so our systems, our devices, are encrypted and secure. But more importantly, the broader question for the NAACP is the public policy around elections. We should be looking at compulsory voting, similar to what´s taking place in Australia and 200 countries where 92% and 96% of the population vote. In Australia, 96%. In Canada, 92%. In Germany, 93%. We´re talking about 49% is a high turn-out. That´s a problem. We need to do away with restrictive polling places. Why should someone get off work and drive past three, four precincts before they can cast a ballot? Why are elections held on a work day for 12 hours in so many states? And more importantly, why do we need voter registration? It´s a vote-suppression method. We are duly eligible to cast a ballot. We´re citizens, so we should be able to do so. Those are big-bucket policy issues that we´re focusing on.
Anderson: All of it, extremely important because, of course, we know that voting participation leads to representation. Derrick, thank you so much for joining us.
Johnson: Thank you for the opportunity.
Anderson: And thank you for joining us, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, be sure to visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I´m Tetiana Anderson.