Washington — The most important civil rights battle of the year has begun on Capitol Hill over whether to extend a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act for 10 more years.
A major symbol of the movement for racial equality, the law is probably the most successful civil rights legislation ever passed.It brought the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of blacks in the Southern United States.
Those who wish to weaken the law say that it has done the job for which it was intended and is no longer needed.
But the need for safeguarding minority voters still lingers, say those who want to keep all provisions of the act intact and in force. From now until the end of June they will be testifying before a House Judiciary subcommittee in an effort to prove that need.
Before the Voting Rights Act was enacted, relatively few blacks were registered to vote in the South. In Mississippi, the most extreme case, only 6. 7 percent of eligible blacks were on the voting rolls. By the mid '70s, the figure jumped to 67 percent.
Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), recalled the earlier days during testimony before the subcommittee last week. He told of watching blacks intimidated by Southern voting officials who tested them with questions such as "How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?" and "How far can the little dog run through the woods?"
Those days are long gone, swept away by the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed literacy tests, poll taxes, and a host of other techniques that had effectively kept blacks off the voting rolls.
No longer is voter registration or intimidation the issue. Now it's a question of cities and counties changing election rules and thus weakening the minority vote.
The two most common methods are annexing a mostly white area to a city or switching to an "at large" voting scheme for councilors. (At-large elections require a majority from the entire city or county for each councilor, making it almost impossible for a racial minority to win. Minorities have a better chance in smaller districts.)
The most controversial provision of the Voting Rights Act aims at halting such actions.That provision, which will expire in August 1982 unless renewed by Congress, targets those states which once had devices such as literacy tests and areas where few minorities voted. Most of the South is included in the target area, plus Alaska and parts of about a dozen other states.
Under this disputed provision, every time a local government in these included areas wants to change its voting procedures, it must "pre-clear" the plan through the US Department of Justice and give evidence that the new plan will not weaken minority voting.
That requirement to take every change to Washington for approval rankles many a Southerner.
"It's big brother federalism taking care of certain parts of the country," said James Kaster, legislative liaison for Gov. William P. Clements of Texas, in a telephone interview. "If it's such a good deal, let everyone be under it."
Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, perennial opponent of the law, has fought and lost in two earlier extension battles. Almost as soon as he took his new post in January as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Thurmond spoke out against pre-clearance. He suggested that if the South needs permission from the Justice Department to make voting changes, so should the rest of the nation.
On the House side, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R) of Illinois has called for taking the South out of the "penalty box," since it has improved its record. He proposes dropping the "pre-clearance" requirements, a move that civil rights leaders say would gut the act.
Supporters of the act point out that the pre-clearance provision is applied to some areas of the North. They also argue that the bureaucratic burden is light because the Justice Department usually acts on proposed voting changes within 60 days. Moreover, they say that if the act were extended to all 50 states, the law would no longer be "cost effective."
Since the law was enacted the Justice Department has reviewed more than 30, 000 proposed election changes and objected to only 815. Opponents point to the small number of complaints as evidence that the law has outlived its usefulness, but supporters claim that the law is still a deterrent.
Also controversial in the Voting Rights Act is a provision added in 1975 to require bilingual elections in those counties with significant numbers of non-English speaking citizens. The Hispanic community objects to proposals filed in both House and Senate to delete that part of the act.
One key will be President Reagan's position. Attorney General William French Smith has indicated his support for the basic safeguards of the right to vote. Vice-President George Bush told a commencement audience at predominantly black Howard University last weekend that the administration supports the right to vote. But the President has taken no stand on the Voting Rights Act itself.