Voting Rights Act: still needed

Have the voting rights of all Americans become so equal and secure that the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 can be safely weakened? This is the question facing legislators as hearings continue into next month on the most important civil rights issue before the current Congress. Unless extraordinary evidence to the contrary emerges, the answer is that the nation needs the proposed extension of the Voting Rights Act in full force.

Not that every provision must be immune to refinement or clarification. But any revision would have to be handled with care, especially when it comes to the central point of urgency -- a means of enforcement that will expire in August of next year unless Congress acts. This is Section 5, which requires federal "preclearance" of changes in election procedures in all or part of more than twenty states. The same preclearance can be imposed by court order anywhere that it does not now automatically apply.

The aim of this preclearance is to prevent states and localities from evading the Voting Rights Act -- and thus the 15th Amendment, which specifies that Congress has the power to enforce the amendment's protection of voting rights. The efforts at evasion have been many, including racial gerrymandering, annexations to change the racial proportions in voting areas, and instituting at-large elections to reduce the weight of black or other minority votes.

In other words, confronted with bans on such discriminatory devices as poll taxes, some jurisdictions have sought to replace them with more subtly discriminatory measures. And, in relation to these, the Supreme Court has declared that "the right to vote can be affected by a dilution of voting power, as well as by an absolute prohibition on casting a ballot."

Progress under the Voting Rights Act has been impressive, as indicated by the increases in minority registration throughout the country. But the threat of the diluting tactics remains: of some 800 proposed election changes objected to under federal review since 1965 more than half have come up during the last five years.

Not every proposal is designed to get around the law. Thousands of them have been reviewed without objection. But the pre-clearance enforcement provision remains necessary as a deterrent to would-be violators.

If it is desirable, why not extend it automatically to all states and localities?This is one debating point in the present congressional discussions. Since most of the full states now covered are in the South, the question of a regional double standard is raised.

Two replies can be made:

One is that parts of states outside the South are also automatically covered under the trigger mechanism based on previous election practices. They include Manhattan and other New York areas, for example, affecting a population larger than some whole Southern states.

The other reply is that a constitutional problem would be raised by imposing the unusual device of federal review on areas without some such triggering standard. To which might be added such an enormous additional enforcement cost as to threaten the legislation on that ground alone.

As for clarifications of the Voting Rights Act, a key one would address a point raised by last year's Supreme Court decision in a Mobile, Ala., election case: that a discriminatory purpose has to be proved. When it comes to the right to vote, a discriminatory effect denies or abridges the right just as much whether its purpose can be proved or not. Thus the new legislation would be helpful in affirming that Congress's intent was to outlaw whatever operates in a manner that results m in a denial or abridgment of the right to vote.

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