While the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee last night debated proposed changes in the Voting Rights Act. a panel of legal and political experts voiced sharply differing views of the future of that landmark civil rights measure at a Kennedy School of Government forum.
Quoting from prominent thinkers as diverse as Samuel Johnson. the 18th-century essayist, and Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.). an arch-conservative who has recently thrown his support behind the 1965 legislation, proponents of the existing legislation said it had vastly increased political participation among minorities, but that "insidious and sophisticated" discrimination still occurs in many states, and "more progress is needed."
Robert Brinson, city attorney for Rome, Ga., agreed that great progress had been made in the South and elsewhere in providing voting rights to minorities, but he said that certain provisions in the federal law "are a nightmare for local attorneys" and should be eliminated.
He singled out section five of the legislation--a "pre-clearance" provision that requires Justice Department approval for any changes in voting laws in states covered by the Act--as a "particular problem for local officals" because the rule forces some cities and countries to check with Washington "every time we move a polling place across the street."
Brinson has represented his Georgia town before the United States Supreme Court in an unsuccessful effort to end federal regulation of the city's election procedures.
Nine states, including seven in the South, and portions of 13 other states, including New York, must obtain federal approval before changing local laws on elections or voting.
Congress originally passed the clearance provision because many Southern states had succeeded in passing statutes that deprived Black voters of their right to go to the polls. The Voting Rights Act has received a great deal of Congressional attention recently because it expires on August 6, 1982.
On Capital Hill last night, members of the House Judiciary panel began discussions on a proposed change in the Act, which would allow counties within covered states to "bail out" of the clearance provision if they could prove that they had complied with federal regulations for 10 years. The current law contains provisions for exemptions, but the standards are so strict that no southern state initially covered by the Act has been able to escape federal supervision.
Rep. Hyde, who joined Rep. Don Edwards (D-Cal.) in proposing the new bail-out provision, said this week that the compromise would encourage conservatives to drop their reservations about the Act and support its extension beyond next year.
William Danvers, an aide to Rep. Robert Garcia (D.N.Y.) and another participant in last night's K-School discussion, endorsed the Hyde-Edwards proposal after he contradicted Brinson's statements about the difficulty in implementing the Act.
"The clearance process is not a difficult process." Danvers said, adding that the Justice Department had questioned only three out of 500 proposed changes in New York election laws in recent years.
The panelists also disagreed on whether certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act should be extended to all states. Brinson, echoing the sentiments of many southern officials said such an extension would make the legislation more equitable, but Ron Brown, chief counsel for the Democratic National Committee and a former lecturer at the K-School, said "effective enforcement would not be possible" if the Act were broadened to cover all states.
About 200 people attended last night's final summer forum at the K-School