Rep. Thomas J. Bliley (R-Va.), saying he had the backing of the entire Virginia congressional delegation, yesterday called for exempting his state from key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Bliley, a former mayor of Richmond, said the major sections of legislation, which is credited with increasing black participation in elections throughout the South, have "served [their] purpose and should be allowed to expire."
The freshman congressman's conclusions were challenged by five leading black Virginians, including Henry Marsh, Richmond's mayor. Marsh told a House subcommittee that he agreed with Rep. Harold Washington (D-Ill.), who declared that "Congressman Bliley's reassurance that 'All's well in Virginia' is hogwash."
The issue before the subcommittee yesterday was whether to extend a provision of the law that requires southern states with a history of discrimination against blacks to secure advance approval from the Justice Department or a federal court for any changes in its election laws. The provision is scheduled to expire in August 1982.
Michael G. Brown of the Virginia conference of the NAACP told Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, that even under the current law, "Virginia has the lowest number of black elected officials of any southern state fully covered under the act."
Brown pleaded with the subcommittee: "Please do not allow the 'good old boys' to turn back the clock and the calendar to the 'good old days' which, in turn, were dark days for blacks in Virginia."
He credited the Voting Rights Act with heading off attempts by the state's white power structure to elect local officials from at-large districts by staggered terms and other "blantant and innovative methods of manipulating the election system and diluting the black vote."
But Bliley said, "The fact that there has not been one claim of a person being denied the right to vote" in Virginia since enactment of the legislation is "ample evidence of good faith and compliance."
Democratic State Sen. Douglas Wilder of Richmond, who said he had "the dubious distinction of being the first black to serve in the Virginia Senate since Reconstruction," said the extension is "necessary to remove the vestiges of discrimination and white supremacy."
Wilder pointed to the legislative redistricting plan recently adopted by the 140-member Virginia General Assembly as an example of attempts to dilute black representation. Although Richmond's population is 51 percent black and Norfolk's is 35 percent black, the plan that has been approved will produce no new black legislators, Wilder said.
Blacks account for 4 percent, or 126, of Virginia's 3,599 elected officials, but they comprise 19 percent of the state's population, Brown said.
Bliley said the clearance provisions of the law place "unreasonable" restrictions on election supervisors. For example, Bliley said, in one Richmond precinct, election officials wanted to move the polling place from the second floor of a school to the first floor gymnasium, but because the request was made 45 days before an election, it was denied by Justice.
Bliley said that if the act is extended, it should apply nationwide, rather than to selected states and areas, an idea that is incorporated in legislation proposed by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the ranking minority member of the subcommittee. Hyde's bill also would replace the clearance provision with a requirement that allegations of repeated discrimination be decided by federal courts, not the Justice Department.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), said last night that Virginia "has done an outstanding job" in assuring that minorities have equal access to registration and voting, and that officials in his district, "are not discriminating."
Northern Virginia's other house member, Republican Stanford E. Parris, added that continuation of the legislation "unfairly penalizes states such as Virginia that have worked out the problem."
In the Senate, Virginia Republican John Warner said he will stick with a campaign promise to fight against extension of the legislation, which President Lyndon B. Johnson said at the time of its passage was "one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom."
House Subcommittee Chairman Edwards said, however, that despite opposition from the Virginia delegation and other conservatives, he expects the House will pass an extension "as strong as possible." The real test, Edwards said, will come in the Senate, where Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), is expected to oppose extension.