Civil rights groups have proved that a carefully planned nationwide effort can move the government. Even as other civil rights issues have lost popularity, a massive grass-roots backing appears to have clinched victory for the Voting Rights Act.
Supporters for renewing the act, said to be the most effective civil rights law ever passed, have pulled in moderate Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and finally won over the White House. Now the only obstacle left is the opposition of two or three senators who could lead a filibuster.
The Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday voted 13-4 to approve a bipartisan compromise to extend the act.
For the past 14 months a coalition of more than 130 groups, ranging from civil rights organizations to labor unions and the League of Women Voters, has been steadily working at the grass-roots level. Local groups have visited their Congress members, run ads in local newspapers, and called press conferences. Even in states such as Iowa and Kansas, where minority voting is hardly a hot local issue, backers of the 1965 act have kept up the pressure.
The work appears to be paying off, as even President Reagan, who has given only lukewarm support to their cause, this week announced his ''heartfelt support'' of a Senate compromise measure and urged quick passage of the Voting Rights Act renewal.
Even the threat of a Senate filibuster looks dim in the face of the growing number of senators, perhaps up to 76 of 100, who back the Voting Rights Act compromise finalized May 3. Some key provisions expire in August, and supporters hope for final Senate action to renew the 1965 act next week. The House has already passed the measure by a lopsided 389-to-24 vote.
To gather in still-wavering senators, civil rights groups had to give some way to their opponents, but not very much.
A major disagreement surrounded wording that would bar election practices that had the ''result'' of closing out minority voters. Opponents, led by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah, charged that such a provision would guarantee minorities proportional representation by race. The senator called for banning only those practices that had racial ''intent.''
The compromise worked out this week states that blacks and other minorities have no right to be elected ''in numbers equal to their proportion in the population.'' However, civil rights groups held fast to their belief that it is nearly impossible to prove that local officials pass election laws intentially to keep minorities out of power. The compromise allows the ''totality of circumstances'' to be used to prove that elections are not equally open to minorities.
In a second change from the House-passed version, the compromise put a 25 -year cap on the ''pre-clearance'' provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Nine states plus parts of 13 others must now ''pre-clear'' all election and polling changes with the US Department of Justice to ensure nondiscrimination. That requirement would be reevaluated in 15 years and would expire in the year 2007.
When the Voting Rights Act was first passed in 1965, it was aimed at Southern states that used literacy tests, white-only primaries, and poll taxes to discourage black voters. Although such practices are now permanently banned, civil rights groups say they still need a strong act to fight more subtle schemes to weaken black political power.