President of the NAACP describes Kanye West's campaign as 'a voter-suppression method because it is put in place to mislead voters'

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty ImagesDerrick Johnson, President and CEO of the NAACP, speaks during a press conference announcing a lawsuit by the NAACP and Prince George’s County, Maryland against the US Census Bureau March 28, 2018 in Washington, DC.
  • Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, spoke to Business Insider about his fears regarding the upcoming 2020 election.
  • “I think stealing the election is a possibility; suppressing the vote is an absolute, and misleading voters is part of their strategy,” Johnson said.
  • Johnson argued that the campaign by Kanye West “is a voter-suppression method because it is put in place to mislead voters.”
  • The selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s running mate has excited voters, African-American women, in particular, Johnson said.
  • “I am feeling the sense of energy and urgency for this election cycle, particularly with the announcement of Kamala Harris as the running mate – a level of excitement that I did not see in 2016,” he said.
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Derrick Johnson became president of the NAACP during President Trump’s first year in office, and he’s not sure he would survive another four-year term.

In an interview with Business Insider, Johnson spoke about voter suppression and how his civil rights organisation plans to fight it; Kanye West’s pseudo-campaign for the White House; and why he thinks the upcoming election is a matter of life and death for African Americans – one that could also determine whether democracy persists in the United States.

Charles Davis:Do you think Donald Trump and the Republican Party are trying to steal the 2020 election?

Derrick Johnson:All their actions indicate that they will do all they can to prevent people from voting, particularly communities where they believe they lack support. I think stealing the election is a possibility; suppressing the vote is an absolute, and misleading voters is part of their strategy.

Davis:A lot of attention has rightly been focused on mail-in voting and the US Postal Service. But Black voters are actually the least likely to choose mail-in voting. Given recent events, is that, ironically, a good thing?

Johnson:Yeah, it is unfortunate that far too many people will have to choose between their health and their right to vote. Having mail-in voting as an option to mitigate against this current health pandemic is the real consideration. Our nation should be more considerate of the health of individuals as opposed to preventing people from exercising their right to fall without the heightened concern of contracting the coronavirus.

Davis:Is the NAACP encouraging people to vote by mail if they can? Or, because of what Donald Trump and the Republicans are trying to do to the Postal Service – and calling mail-in ballots part of a rigged election process – are you encouraging in-person voting, where it is safe to do so?

Johnson:Well, we encourage individuals to cast their ballot by any means they can that is safe and in a way that can ensure that their vote will be counted. And because voting is a state-by-state legal landscape, it varies from state to state around what we are encouraging people to do. People should not have to wait in long lines or navigate machines that may transfer the virus. Therefore, if your state allows for early voting, which could minimise lines, we’re encouraging them to do that. We simply are encouraging people to make sure to exercise their right to vote and to do so in consideration of their wellbeing and health.

Davis:What other, I guess you could call it traditional voter suppression methods, should we in the media be on the lookout for in 2020? And what’s keeping you up at night?

Johnson:Well, what’s keeping me up at night around voting are all the things we don’t know we don’t know at this juncture. I mean the traditional stuff: closing polling places in targeted communities or not equipping call the places with the adequate machines; forcing people to choose between health and their right [to vote]; creating chaos on election day; voters not knowing in which precincts they should cast their ballot. And unfortunately, without the protection of the Voting Rights Act… and the potential of a federal bench who may not react to the current landscape as one would expect. There are a lot of concerns that we have.

Davis:That’s voter suppression. Are you at all concerned about voter siphoning? And what I mean by that is that it now seems increasingly obvious that the Kanye West campaign, if it’s not merely a vanity campaign, is being helped by Republican operatives (and he’s met with members of the White House) and did not deny that his campaign could be a a spoiler. Do you think that could work, or do you think it could actually backfire? Because some polls suggest that Kanye West actually pulls more support from Trump voters.

Johnson:One, we see this as a voter-suppression method because it is put in place to mislead voters. Two, this is just one of many tactics that we’ve seen in the past, and we anticipate to see new and emerging tactics. Elections are won by [fractions of] a per cent, and we expect that this administration and those individuals who are aligned with it will do all they can to siphon off as many voters as possible, either by misdirecting who they vote for or suppressing their ability to cast a ballot.

Davis:What other methods do you think will be employed to depress turnout? Maybe legal, but kind of sketchy methods that we’ve seen in past elections.

Johnson:We anticipate voter intimidation at the polling places; misinformation on social media platforms; misdirection on how one can, and when they can, cast the ballot. I believe this election we’re going to see an ever-increasing threat from individuals, both foreign and domestic, seeking to cast a shadow on our election process.

Davis:We obviously saw a lot of that interference in 2016. And I wanted to pivot to that real quick because obviously Black voter turnout dropped significantly in 2016 compared to 2012. How much of that was voter suppression versus a lack of enthusiasm for the nominee? And do you think Joe Biden is likely to fare better?

Johnson:Well, I think there were some concerns around the enthusiasm and the strategies in 2016 compared to prior years. It was obvious that African-American voter turnout was at a 20-year low.

I am feeling the sense of energy and urgency for this election cycle, particularly with the announcement of Kamala Harris as the running mate – a level of excitement that I did not see in 2016. And as we approach the date of the election, we will begin to see whether or not that energy will be sustained, I believe it will, based on my observations, but we are 70-something days out. We have to see whether or not the level of enthusiasm and energy will be sustained past the party convention cycle.

Davis:Could you tell me a little bit more about your impression of the Kamala Harris pick and how that impacts the race?

Johnson:I think Senator Harris generated a level of energy, particularly for African-American women, which is the strongest and largest voting bloc not only in the African-American community but within the Democratic Party. That’s a positive. And so we will see how that will actually translate on election day, but early indications tend to tell me that there’s an instant level of energy and excitement around her as vice president.

Davis:Do you think Senator Harris’ background as a prosecutor and attorney general is going to be an asset in this election? Because I guess there’s two sides to it: on the one hand, Republicans say Joe Biden wants to defund the police and usher in anarchy, and she argues against that; on the other hand, obviously with Black Lives Matter protests shifting national opinion, her pretty liberal record as a prosecutor is not seen as progressive as some would like to see from a prosecutor today, at least in the view of activists. So how are you seeing her background impacting this race?

Johnson:I think it’s an opportunity for her to display and explain any concerns that voters have about her background. I can say for African Americans, particularly African-American women, that has not been an issue. Many of them are excited about the possibility and open for the dialogue around any concerns that they may have. But their excitement vastly overshadows any concerns that others may raise.

Davis:I want to pivot a little bit to the Democratic convention that’s happening this week. One of the speakers is John Kasich. And since we were talking about voter suppression, I know that in 2014, he signed into law, a couple of measures that restricted early voting and forbade automatic universal absentee voting. So I was just curious what you think about him speaking at the Democratic convention?

Johnson:You know, it has always been said that the Democratic Party is a big tent and you have maybe a view of how public policy should be implemented. And I think that’s the strength of the party: to be diverse and broad enough to allow people to have differences of opinions while at the exact same time maintain[ing] overarching value propositions for the members of the party.

Davis:Looking ahead to November, I think every election in my life has been referred to as “the most important election,” and it might’ve been the most important election each time. How important is this election and what would this country look like if Donald Trump got a second term?

Johnson:Well, based on our focus groups and polling, many African Americans feel that our lives depend on the outcome of this election. Much of what’s been indicated in both his words and deeds demonstrate that there is a complete disregard for African Americans as individuals, and as a whole. If he is reelected, there is grave concern over the continuation of the stripping of the rights of many Americans, Black and white, have grown accustomed to; defunding and attempting to completely demolish the postal service; the over-stacking of the courts with individuals who are not qualified, based on their experience and background, to serve in those lifetime appointments. Those are of grave concern to African Americans, as it should be to everybody, and another term would completely strip our notion of democracy in ways in which we may not be able to recover.

Davis:And what is the NAACP doing to ensure that he doesn’t get a second term?

JohnsonWell, we don’t endorse political parties or candidates. What we do is encourage our members to vote. We must recover the loss of those who voted in 2012 but skipped in 2016. And so we got to work very hard to make sure our voter turnout across the country is as strong as it was in 2008 or 2012.

Davis:What is something that you wish we in the media would ask you more about, or that you think is an overlooked issue?

Johnson:How social media networks like Facebook have refused to police the platform to ensure that democracy is not to be subverted by foreign entities; not allow Trump or any individual to cause us to operate under a system of tribalism and xenophobia and racism.

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