Rolling Back Rights


JUST WHEN minorities thought they'd heard the worst from this Administration, the President hit them again last week. Given yet another opportunity to dispel minority fears of government insensitivity and indifference, the President hedged--succeeding only in intensifying those impressions. Appearing before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. Attorney General William French Smith pledged the Administration's support for extension of the Voting Right Act of 1965; at the same time, he demanded certain revisions that would effectively gut the law. Welcome back--the same people who brought you tax exemptions to racially discriminatory schools, now present you with a fresh, new controversy.

The Voting Rights Act Stemmed from a special Congressional assembly called by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 to deal with the problem of Black disenfranchisement. A major triumph of the civil rights crusades, the law permanently banned literacy tests for voting purposes anywhere in the nation.

But the Senate is now scrutinizing the sinew of the act, its pre-clearance provision; that section requires nine states and parts of 13 others with histories of voter discrimination to submit any changes in their election laws to the Justice Department for approval. The heavily Democratic Congress that included this precaution hoped it would halsthe delay tactics of many jurisdictions--which habitually enacted discriminatory voting laws and dragged out litigation on them for years. And since 1965, the law has largely succeeded. By 1969 Black voter registration had doubled in six states. Today an estimated 2,400 blacks hold political office in the South.

Still, voting right about continue. A report released by the American Civil Liberties Union last week detailed considerable discrimination against Black voters and called for an even stronger preclearance clause. Of more than 35,000 proposed voting law changes submitted in the Justice Department for approval since 1965, 850 have been rejected--half of them since 1975. Most of the proposals would establish at-large elections that send to dilute Black voting strength. And last fall, the House passed a new version of the act that strengthens the pre-clearance provision and makes it permanent.

IT IS THIS House version of the bill that the Senate judiciary subcommittee is now weighing, and that President Reagan wants to hamstring. For example, the Administration wants to incorporate a bailout provision in the bill. That clause would allow states with clean records to escape the pre-clearance requirement. Supporters of the provision say it would remove stigmas from jurisdictions that are now law-abiding.


Voting Rights lobbyists argue that no jurisdictions deserve to be bailed out; certainly few have put forth voting plans that would qualify under current guidelines. And Rep. Henry Hyde (R-III.) who led the House opposition to the current law, now says he has changed his mind. The reason: He has found little evidence that any jurisdictions have mended their ways.

Opponents of Reagan's bail-out clause further argue that exempting locals because of clear records would cause unsolvable problems of definition; jurisdictions with biased voting procedures could go scot-free. The slightest possibility that jurisdictions have not eliminated their discriminatory codes should suffice to keep pre-clearance in force.

The Administration would like to virtually demolish the effectiveness of the bill through one clause is particular. Prior to a 1980 Supreme Court decision, plaintiffs in voting rights cases had to prove only that the laws were enforced in such a way that their effect was discriminatory. Courts would consider a number of factors to determine whether a law impaired a minority's right to vote. The House bill would reestablish this standard. But the Administration seeks to reaffirm at best the standard enunciated is Mobile v. Bolden (180)-which said that a plaintiff had to prove an invent to discriminate, a far harder task. Ignoring the realities of contempoary discrimination in its scrutiny of generations-old election laws, this doctrine places a tremendous burden on the plaintiff.

In Tunica, Mississippi, a 1980 census showed a 73 percent Black population; however, all five county-supervisors were white. In Dallas County. Alabama, whites have held all four of the county commissionerships for the past 80 years, though the county is 45 percent Black. Under the intent standard, these abuses are virtually untouchable. A plaintiff would have the staggering burden of proving that an at-large election system deliberately discriminated against him. In many cases this task would be nearly impossible since it would require reading the minds of long-dead officials.

The effect standard may limit the authority of some jurisdictions. This seems, however, a small price to pay when measured against the possibility that an individual may be denied a fundamental right.

THE ADMINISTRATION'S POSITION has little to do with the mechanics of the Voting Rights Act and very much to do with political jockeying. White House officials know they will need the crucial Black vote to win Congressional races later this year; hence it continues to support in name the act itself. At the same time, the President's men feel a need to placate their conservative supporters who have repeatedly and insistently charged them with abandoning their cause.

While political maneuvering is an insufferable feature of our system, pork barrel projects are one thing and this is another. People are being denied the right most basic to democracy, which this administration threatens to lose out to groveling conservatives, denying liberties in the name of federalism.

The President's most recent machinations will not endear his Administration to minorities any more than the Bob Jones controversy did. As long as the Administration tries to castrate this civil liberty, what has been formed the President's "crisis of confidence" in his commitment to minorities continues unabated.