The Right to Register and Vote is Not a Partisan Issue By Jesse Jackson

August 27, 2022

The Right to Register and Vote is Not a Partisan Issue
By Jesse Jackson



( - The right to vote, Dr. Martin Luther King taught in his famous “Give Us the Ballot” address, is one of the “highest mandates of our democratic tradition.” Democracy is founded on the right of citizens to decide via popular, free and fair elections who should represent them. Across the world, the U.S. champions democracy. Yet at home the right to vote is embattled.

The United States trails most other developed democracies in voter participation. Our neighbors – Mexico and Canada, our European allies, our Asian friends like South Korea, and Australia all have higher voter participation than the U.S. does.

The reason isn’t a mystery. In most democracies, national governments take responsibility for registering their citizens to vote. In many countries, registration is automatic when citizens become old enough. In others, like the United Kingdom, governments take responsibility to seek out and register eligible voters, something like how our Census Bureau takes responsibility to get people counted in the census.

In the U.S., voting laws are decentralized. In most states, getting registered is left to the individual. Some states purposefully make it more difficult to register – requiring various forms of documentation, requiring in-person as opposed to online registration, limiting volunteer efforts to get people registered and more.

So, while turnout of those who are registered – 86.8 percent in 2020 – is relatively high, only 64 percent of the voting age population is registered. That compares to 92 percent in England, 93 percent in Canada, and 94 percent in Sweden.

Failures in registration lead to lower voter turnout – and disproportionately impacts those who are younger, less educated, and less wealthy. Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans are also less likely to be registered – and thus to vote.

The problem is reinforced by how our high-cost electoral campaigns are run. Campaigns target those who vote – not those less likely to vote. Candidates often make little or no effort to appeal to those who tend not to vote. That lack of appeal and attention then makes their turnout even worse.

Making it easy to register and vote should be embraced by all Americans no matter their party or their politics. The Freedom to Vote Act would set national standards for voting, including automatic voter registration, same-day registration, online registration, and standards for maintaining voter rolls and the like.

It failed in the Senate due to a filibuster supported by all Republican senators. Sen. Marco Rubio, (R-FL), a former presidential contender, claimed that the Act and the renewal of the Voting Rights Act constituted a “radical progressive agenda,” pushed by “Marxists in Washington, DC” and a “leftist elite class.” The Chamber of Commerce opposed making voting easier.

Since Donald Trump spread the Big Lie that the election in 2020 was stolen, Republicans in states across the country have sought to make it harder to register and vote. Last year, according to the Brennan Center, Republican legislators in 19 states passed 34 laws making it harder for Americans, and particularly Black and Latino Americans to vote. Hundreds more were filed this year.

The purpose is clear. In the South after the Civil War, Jim Crow laws were passed to keep Blacks from voting. The plantation crowd wanted to keep newly freed Blacks from combining with working and poor whites to form multiracial coalitions to transform their states. “Thus,” Dr. King noted, “the threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike resulted in the establishment of a segregated society."

Today is no different. Republicans – supported by corporations and the rich – want to limit the ability of working and poor people to come together and vote to transform the country. So, claims of voter fraud focus on urban areas with large minority populations. And voter restriction schemes are targeted to make it harder for those populations to vote.

But America cannot credibly champion democracy abroad while undermining it at home. Those like Sen. Rubio, who consider democracy a Marxist plot, do this nation a great disservice. The right to register and vote is not a partisan issue – it is a democratic essential. And now once more, citizens must rally to defend it from those who would undermine it.