Voting Rights Act gains surprise backers in Washington

Things are looking up for the Voting Rights Act, a most-important civil rights law that has vastly increased the num ber of minorities in practical politics.

A key congressional committee has voted to extend it virtually intact while providing a reasonable way for affected states to free themselves from its restrictions if they can show that they no longer discriminate.

Supporters of the act had feared that a conservative White House and Congress might severely weaken it.

But even some conservative members of Congress have said they want to extend the Voting Rights Act, an important provision of which expires next year. President Reagan has changed his mind on an important issue that could have diluted the law's effectiveness, and the Justice Department under Mr. Reagan has not hesitated to enforce it vigorously in offending states.

Under the law, nine states (mostly in the South) and parts of 13 other states that used literacy tests or otherwise discriminated in the past are required to get Justice Department approval before they change election laws. This applies to such things as moving polling places, redistricting, and annexation. Some 35 000 changes have been proposed since the Voting Rights Act first was passed in 1965, and the Justice Department has objected to about 800.

Since 1965, the number of eligible blacks registered to vote has shot up in many places, especially the South. In Mississippi, for example, the number increased from 6.7 percent in the 1964 election to 67.4 percent in 1976.

Opponents argue that the law has done its job, and that the affected states have been in "the political penalty box" long enough.

But witnesses at recent congressional hearings told of current practices in some states that still tend to discriminate, including making it difficult for blacks to register.

This convinced the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee -- Henry Hyde of Illinois -- to change his mind about extending the Voting Rights Act. Whereas he had formerly found the so-called "preclearance" section of the law to be "an unwarrented intrusion on the federal system," he now favors extending it for another 10 years.

Other influential conservatives including Rep. Jack F. Kemp (R) of New York, also want to extend the law, including the disputed preclearance section.

Under a compromise that now must be approved by the full House, states after 1984 will be able to "bail out" of the preclearance section if they can convince a federal judge in Washington that within the previous 10 years they have made "constructive efforts" to include minority members in the election process.

During that same period, they also must have followed Justice Department instructions regarding election laws and not been found to discriminate.

Such a compromise may not have as easy a time in the more conservative Senate as it should in the Democratic House.

Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, either wants to do away with the preclearance section or have it apply to all 50 states regardless of their relative guilt or innocence in voting matters. Voting Rights Act supporters say the law would be significantly weakened either way.

But Mr. Thurmond has lost the support of the capital's senior concervative on this important point.President Reagan -- who until now had agreed with the Thurmond position -- reversed himself and said the law ought not to be expanded to include all states. Reagan told the editorial board of the Washington Star that he feels "very strongly" about the Voting Rights Act. Barring evidence to the contrary from a current Justice Department study of the law, he said, it should be extended for another 10 years.

As proof that the law still is needed, supporters point to recent action by the Reagan administration itself.

The Justice Department last week rejected a Virginia House of Delegates reapportionment plan that it said discriminated against blacks in five counties. This followed an earlier Justice Department ruling that vetoed a voting plan proposed by the Virginia Senate.

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