Voter Mobilization Focus of 111th NAACP Convention
By Maria Morales
Combating misinformation and securing access to the polls were the focus of a series of virtual panels on voting rights at the 111th annual NAACP Convention on Sept. 18, which was National Black Voter Day.
The nation’s leading civil rights lawyers and voting activists discussed both organic and manmade challenges to the voting process in what is being called the most logistically complicated general election since the Civil War.
“We didn’t wake up in this posture,” said NAACP President Derrick Johnson. “There is a long history that brought us here and there’s an intentionality to exclude our voices in this democracy, and it’s systemic.”
The series began with a two-part panel discussion, Where Do We Go From Here?, in which attorneys from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Advancement Project joined the NAACP to discuss the legal fight to provide fair, nondiscriminatory voting access for all citizens – from Black and brown communities to those with disabilities, citizens who speak English as a second language, and returning citizens.
The global coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected Black and brown Americans, rocked the national economy and has many concerned about safety when voting in person. More voters are considering absentee and mail-in balloting. But misinformation regarding the voting process has been blasted on social media, as well as from the Trump administration and from President Trump himself.
This misinformation, along with Russian interference targeting the African American community and damaging blows to the U.S. postal system have become modern suppression tactics to deter citizens from voting, all what Gilda Daniels, director of litigation for the Advancement Project, called “weapons of mass distraction.”
Several civil rights organizations are stepping up efforts to challenge legal roadblocks set up by states and local jurisdictions, and to empower voters by providing accurate information state by state especially regarding absentee and mail-in balloting.
The LDF has filed lawsuits to relax restrictions on absentee voting in several states including South Carolina, Louisiana and Alabama, which has the most restrictive absentee voting rules in the country, according to Sherrilyn Ifill, executive director of the LDF. They were victorious at the trial level but the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the cases, Ifill said.
In addition, more than 300 COVID-related voter-access cases have been filed nationally since the pandemic began during the height of the primary election season in March, according to Daniels.The pandemic provided a captive audience in which a number of injustices occurred this year including the murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Ahmaud Arbery outside Brunswick, Ga., and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. These incidents sparked an international outcry and out of it came a new movement for Black Lives.
The diversity of voices speaking out for change, from celebrities such as LeBron James and John Legend, to members of the LGBTQ community, whites and other racial groups, and the depth of the conversations among these voices, has been welcomed by the civil rights community, the activists said.
There’s a new sense of urgency for this upcoming general election in which not only will voting have a significant impact on the presidential election but at the local level as well where district attorneys, judges and sheriffs decide what happens in the criminal justice system.
Jamal Watkins, Vice President of civic engagement for the NAACP, encouraged people to communicate with others in their community about the issues that impact them and find candidates who are speaking to those issues.
Black voter participation in the 2016 presidential election was the lowest since the 2000 election, although a record number of people overall voted.
“The 2016 election showed us that we can’t wait for someone to come and save us,” Watkins said. “We have to speak up and save ourselves.”
Watkins announced a new NAACP campaign, Black Voices Change Lives, to boost turnout among infrequent Black voters in critical battleground states where data from previous elections shows the Black vote is the determining factor in the outcome of the election. The website also provides information on how to request a ballot, voting laws by area, and allows visitors to make a voting plan with automatic reminders.
Voting is the first step, he said, but after the elections, we must hold our elected officials accountable and continue to advocate for change. Watkins and other activists hope the pattern of rising and waning enthusiasm with each election cycle will give way in this new season to the power of continual engagement.
Stacey Abrams has remained engaged in the voter process after her 2018 Georgia gubernatorial run was sabotaged by voter suppression. She has used the experience to create an organization, Fair Fight, to combat voter suppression nationwide.
Her story, and the work of voting rights advocacy, is featured in the new documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy on Amazon Prime.In addition, Abrams said, the census is as essential to the African American community as the vote and is equally under attack by the current administration. The census, Abrams noted, provides access to power and privilege for the African American community. She pointed out that political districts will be redrawn and money will be allocated for recovery post-pandemic based on 2020 census data.
“Filling out the census is how you get what you deserve,” Abrams said. “It’s how you get your economic power.”
Understand your voting options, choose an option and make a plan to vote. This is the strategy that voting rights advocates are suggesting for voters to successfully navigate this election season.
Get accurate, up-to-date information state by state from trusted sources and file a complaint if you experience a problem with voting by calling 866-OUR-VOTE or visit vote.org.