"It has only been some 18 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and already black people hold 1 percent of the elective offices. At this pace, it will take us only 200 years to reach parity."

Jesse Jackson is kidding, of course. What he means to say is that, except for a spurt of interest when the Voting Rights Act was up for extension last year, we've grown complacent about the franchise. Blacks as well as whites assume that, with the occasional newsworthy exception, voting-rights violations have gone the way of cattle prods and "whites only" signs. If black people don't vote in proportion to their numbers, the assumption goes, the reason must be some combination of ignorance and apathy.

Jackson doesn't deny the lost potential of the black vote. Indeed it has been a recent theme of his as he toys with a run for the Democratic nomination for president.

With the exception of Florida, Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory margin in the southern states was smaller than the total of unregistered black voters, Jackson contends, citing figures compiled by the Congressional Black Caucus and the Joint Center for Political Studies. For instance, Reagan's margin in Virginia was 237,435 votes; Virginia has 331,134 unregistered blacks. North Carolina, which Reagan carried by less than 40,000 votes, has more than half a million unregistered blacks. Even in Mississippi, which leads the South with 75.8 percent black registration, there are 130,000 unregistered blacks. Reagan carried Mississippi by 11,808 votes.

But if he acknowledges that black voters could have defeated Reagan, Jackson denies that apathy was the reason for their failure to do so.

The culprit, he contends, is "a new form of oppression." He has in mind the combination of subtle intimidation and party rules: the removal of registration offices from black neighborhoods, for instance, or Mississippi's requirement of dual registration, in the voter's home town as well as in the sometimes distant county seat; the "second primary" rule in nine southern states which can deny primary victory to the leading candidate who garners less than a majority of the total vote; the exclusion of blacks from the slate-making process.

"What you find," he says, "is that where black leaders have a chance to win, they run, and when they run, blacks register. That's the story in Chicago and elsewhere. It's a question of self-interest. When people see their interests on the line, they vote. That's a lot clearer in state and local elections than it is in presidential elections. We keep trying to get people interested in voting on a national level, where overall policy is conducted, thinking that it will trickle down to the local level. The fact is, if you get people involved on the local level, where the fruits of those policies are distributed, the effect will trickle up. But you can't get people involved locally unless their leaders have a chance to win, or at least have a role in determing who will run. The Democrats have been pushing integrated voting and segregated slate-making, and it won't work."

Jackson, looking for ways to move black political participation beyond mere voting, last week convened some 200 lawyers from the Legal Defense Fund, the National Bar Association and his own Operation PUSH. "I'm not sure what we will do," he said. "We might wind up littering the courts with complaints. The one thing I am sure of is that when you have a transcendent agenda, something that goes beyond any one group's priorities, you can make things happen."