Democrats have a chance to finally win the fight for voting rights that started in 1965

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. and David Daley, Opinion contributors
·5 min read

It’s a breeze for Georgians in white neighborhoods to vote after work. The average line after 7 p.m. only takes six minutes in precincts that are 90% white. It’s a much longer slog in polling places that are 90% non-White. The average wait after 7 p.m.? Fifty-one minutes.

In mail-in voting states like Washington and Oregon, voters can easily deposit their ballots in one of thousands of conveniently located dropboxes. In Texas, officials allowed one box per county (some the size of small states), and now some lawmakers have proposed eliminating them all together.

Officials in Ridgeland, Miss., a majority White suburb of Jackson, quietly resegregated voting precincts this summer. More than 2,500 largely Black and Hispanic residents who had long voted at the local recreation center were shuffled, most without notification, to a precinct about 10 minutes away. Just under 2,500 voters, almost entirely white, voted at the rec center, plush with several hundred parking spots and eight to 10 voting machines. The new largely Black precinct, meanwhile, served some 3,700 voters, with just 25 parking spaces and five machines.

Democrats must move fast on voting

As of 2019, meanwhile, nearly 60 million Americans lived in states so gerrymandered that one or both chambers of their state legislature were controlled by Republicans after the 2018 elections, even though Democratic candidates won more statewide votes. In Michigan, a gerrymandered legislature overruled a statewide initiative and enacted an emergency manager provision that led to the Flint water crisis, a Legionnaire’s disease outbreak and children with lead poisoning.

Florida’s gerrymandered legislature gutted a 2018 constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to 1.4 million citizens who served their time and completed a felony sentence. Almost two-thirds of Floridians voted to unwind this cruel vestige of the Jim Crow south. The legislature responded with another racist suppression tool: A poll tax, requiring all fines and fees associated with a sentence to be paid. Only an estimated 31,000 of those 1.4 million people won back the franchise. In November, then-President Donald Trump carried the state by 370,000 votes.

Polling station on Dec. 14, 2020, in Atlanta.
Polling station on Dec. 14, 2020, in Atlanta.

The violent mobs that overran the Capitol were an especially vivid and horrifying example of how democracies die. Yet every day, if you look, there have been quieter but still unacceptable examples like these. When officials rig the rules, suppress votes through racist means, and allow vastly unequal access to the ballot box, democracy rots from the inside.

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It’s time to act. Voting rights are civil rights. It is crucial that the new Democratic majority in Washington move quickly to ensure that the sacred right to vote is protected for us all. The good news is that Democrats appear to have gotten the message. The "For The People Act," the first bill introduced in this new Congress, provides valuable and sweeping protections that would go a long way toward ending all these inequities and ensuring that every voice is heard, equally.

End purges, protect early voting

It would ban partisan gerrymandering and require independent commissions draw our congressional districts, not self-interested politicians. Felon disenfranchisement would be ended, everywhere, strengthening communities, restoring a civic voice to millions, and offering a HR 1 second chance to returning citizens. Every state would need to offer two weeks of early voting and distribute the early voting sites fairly across all neighborhoods. That would stop state legislatures from eliminating the exact times when Black voters tend to vote early, as North Carolina and other states have attempted to do.

Ever since the Supreme Court gutted the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, states have also used unfair and unreliable purges of the voting rolls that have whacked 32 million people from the rolls between 2014 and 2018, disproportionately voters of color and with Latino and Asian last names. The For The People Act would guard against that happening again.

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Just as importantly, while guarding against bad things, this legislation would actively make voting easier and safer — guaranteeing automatic voter registration, same-day registration and online registration for all Americans.

The fight has been the same since the brutality in Selma helped win the 1965 Voting Rights Act: Our democracy is only equal when all Americans have the same access to the ballot. The Capitol siege reminds us, once again, that these battles are hardly consigned to the past, and that the decay began before Trump’s presidency and will not disappear now that it has mercifully ended.

Black voters in Georgia helped Democrats regain the U.S. Senate. Now it is time to use that power that we won, together, to secure the right to vote for us all.

The Rev. Jesse Louis Jackson Sr. (@RevJJackson) is the founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. David Daley (@davedaley3) is the author of “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy” and “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Democrats must move fast on voting and finally win this democracy fight