Opinion | Civil Rights

Congress must step up to protect our democracy

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

After a long summer recess, Congress has returned to vital issues about the strength and safety of our democracy. Our nation faces multiple challenges to maintaining and defending a democracy representative of everyone. For communities of color, fulfilling the promise of full participation and inclusion in our political process is paramount.   

First, the Voting Rights Act needs to be restored to its full strength. Six years ago, the Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to the act in Shelby County v. Holder. The court struck at the heart of the act by eliminating pre-approval of voting changes in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination. Despite a voluminous congressional record of persistent voting discrimination, Chief Justice John Roberts declared, "Our country has changed."  

Shelby County opened the floodgates of voter suppression, and the discrimination continues. Dozens of states and countless localities have enacted voter suppression measures. New democracy-suppression tactics have sprung up, such as Florida's nullification of a ballot measure to re-enfranchise formerly incarcerated persons, and a Tennessee law penalizing voter registration efforts. An alarming new report by the Brennan Center found that 17 million voters were purged from voting rolls between 2016 and 2018, with purges coming disproportionately from jurisdictions excused from oversight by Shelby County

If Congress needed more evidence to support passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, this is it. In our testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Sept. 10, we pressed both parties to revive the full power of the Voting Rights Act, which always has enjoyed strong bipartisan support.   

Additionally, we must call for strong federal enforcement of what's left of the Voting Rights Act. Once the powerful prosecutor of voting rights violations, the Department of Justice has stood by as widespread voter suppression poisons our democracy. The department has filed no cases under Section 2 of the act, the most effective tool remaining to address voting violations. It has changed positions to defend voter suppression and purging. Congress must exercise its oversight responsibility by monitoring this department's every move, objecting when it fails to protect our rights, and holding its leaders accountable.       

We also must ensure that the federal courts protect full participation in our democracy. President Trump's judicial appointments are a central feature of this administration's broad-based assault on voting rights. The NAACP recently released a report chronicling the egregious records of Trump's nominees who have defended or enabled voter suppression. There is no mistaking that Trump is weaponizing the bench to restrict the vote. For every federal jurisdiction around the country, we must insist that the Senate confirm individuals who are impartial, unbiased and committed to a democracy open to all.        

Through its oversight power, Congress also must insist that the 2020 Census produces an accurate count. The census helps to ensure fair political representation - in allocating seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, determining the number of Electoral College votes, and creating electoral lines at all levels of government. The Trump administration's attempt to add a citizenship question to the census posed the greatest threat to representational democracy since the Three-Fifths Compromise. Apparently motivated to maximize white political power, it appeared to engage in deceit at the highest levels to ask about citizenship in order to suppress participation. Even this Supreme Court found its efforts fraudulent. But the census battle may not be over, and much damage has been done. Congress must be vigilant in ensuring that each and every one of us is counted.          

Finally, protecting our democracy from foreign interference must be high on Congress's agenda.  Former special counsel Robert Mueller's report concluded that Russia "interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion." Russia may have helped Trump win the presidency by manipulating voters, fomenting racial division and targeting the African American community to suppress voter turnout. In his testimony before Congress, Mueller warned that Russian election interference is ongoing: "They're doing it as we sit here." Congress must pass legislation at once to protect the integrity and security of our elections.    

More than 130 years ago, the Supreme Court said that the right to vote is "preservative of all rights." Congress must work to repair the damage afflicting our democracy in order to address the business of the American people. That means protecting our democracy from foreign influences and the ravages of racism and exclusion that threaten it from within. We call upon every member of Congress to rise above politics to defend and strengthen our democracy. 

Derrick Johnson is president and CEO of the NAACP. Follow him on Twitter @DerrickNAACP and @NAACP.