A citywide voter registration drive this month is designed t dramatize the support of blacks and other minorities for a 10-year extension of th 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The registration effort is being directed by James Speights, head of the District office of Congressional Delegate Walter Fauntroy.
The D.C. campaign is part of a national campaign to win support for the extension. Unless extended, the act would expire in August 1982.
For Speights, happiness is watching the stack of voter registration cards on his desk grow ever upward.
"It takes a lot of energy to get people registered," Speights said. "But when you see the stack getting bigger and bigger, you realize that it's all worth it. We're trying to make D.C. the epitome of voter participation in America."
The District has a long way to go to reach that distinction: Only 58.4 percent of the city's voting-age population is registered to vote, Speights said.
To focus attention on the extension, Fauntroy and other members of the Black Leadership Forum, a 16-member coalition of national black organizations' leaders, have named August "Voting Rights Act Month." They are urging blacks across the nation to hold voter registration drives.
The act prohibits, among other things, the use of literacy tests and other devices as qualifications for voting in any election for public office, assures that residency requirements will not prevent citizens from voting and protects against gerrymandering, which had been used to keep blacks from gaining public office.
On July 31, the House Judiciary Committee voted out a bill to extend the act. President Ronald Reagan has voiced his support, but has not said whether he approves of the act as it stands now or if he would support changes. The bill is expected to go before the full House for debate in September.
According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the act has led to "greatly increased registration, voting and election of blacks to public office."
Fauntroy said that "since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, more than four million new black voters have been added to the voter registration roles of the nation. Because of that growth in black political power, black voters now have the potential to determine the outcome of 110 races for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 30 seats in the Senate."
The act also has had a significant impact on the District, Fauntroy said, in that "the increased voting power of blacks nationwide, particularly in the South, encouraged many members of Congress to support home rule in 1973 and the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment in 1978."
Opponents of the act claim that it is no longer needed. But Fauntroy and others have said that if the act is not extended, many of the same discriminatory tactics that were used against blacks and other minorities will surface again.
The local registration drive, being coordinated by the D.C. Advisory Committee on National Voting Rights Month, began Aug. 1 with a sparsely attended rally at Dunbar High School. It gathered momentum last weekend as about 30 registration workers at booths set up on street corners and in grocery store parking lots throughout the city signed up about 1,500 residents. Sunday was dubbed "Voting Rights Sabbath" by the D.C. Council of Churches and ministers were urged to speak on voter participation.
At a registration booth outside a busy Safeway store at 3830 Georgia Ave. NW last Saturday, Carroll "Skeezie" Payne, 39, a longtime grassroots organizer now working for Fauntroy, went after prospective registrants like a hawk after prey.
"Brother, I know you're not registered, are you?" Payne said, approaching a young man in his early 20s on his way inside the store.
"No," the man said.
"Okay, then take this card and fill it out. It doesn't take but a second." Payne registered about 40 people before the day ended.
Several miles away, in a park area at Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Portland Street SE, Nathan Saunders, 16, who is too young to vote but not too young to understand the act's importance, was working passersby with the same enthusiasm.
"If you don't vote," he told a crowd of male and female voting-age adults, "it's just like you're a slave standing in a cotton field. You don't have any say in what happens." Saunders is an administrative assistant for City Councilmember Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8), whose ward has the lowest level of voter participation in the city, according to Speights.
The advisory committee is discussing future activities, including a disco dance targeted at young adults, a concert and a voter registration fair. Persons wishing more information may call 275-0171.
Planned for next week is a visit to Lorton Reformatory to urge inmates, who forfeited their right to vote when they were convicted of a crime, to write letters to their family members and friends, asking them to make sure that they take advantage of their right to vote.
Speights said, "Our goal in D.C. is to increase the level of voter registration 20 percent. That's an ambitious figure, so if we get anywhere close to it, that will be good."