So far the debate on the renewal and revision of the Voting Rights Act -- due to expire in August 1982 -- has not been very edifying. Exaggerated charges and counter-charges have obscured the real complexities of the issue.
It would thus seem a welcome sign that a compromise bill has emerged in the House Judiciary Committee that would allow counties with a history of "good behavior" to extricate themselves from the most intrusive provisions of the act. In fact, as the bill is currently written, no southern country is likely to meet the stringent criteria established. Those who drafted the bill clearly believe that the act should continue to cover the entire Deep South, and if the bill is passed, they will probbably get their way.
A few basic facts. The initial aim of the 1965 act was the enfranchisement of southern blacks, and that goal was quickly met. Nor can the ballots once again be taken away. The literacy test (fraudulently administered) was the chief means of disenfranchisement, and the ban on such tests will remain. Criminal penalties for voting fraud are here to stay. They are among the permanent provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
It is thus necessary to take with a grain of salt the assertion, frequently made, that if the act is allowed to expire, the South will return to its pre-1965 ways. "Minorities stand perilously close to where they were in 1877, when the nation, grown weary of the race issue, agreed to let local officials deal with voting rights as they saw fit," one civil rights attorney has recently written. But history won't repeat itself. There are neither the economic nor the political conditions for renewed, widespread oppression.
Yet also deserving skepticism is the assertion tha black voting has so radically transformed the structure of southern politics that the temporary provisions of the act are no longer necessary. Those who want to see the act renewed, but greatly watered down, argue that to retain all the current provisions is to penalize the South for its past. Yet in many places that past is clearly present. Not penalties, but protection, is what supporters of the act clearly have in mind.
Much less clear, however, is the extent of the need for such protection. The gains are less fragile than some assert, but we lack an accurate sense of the magnitude of actual change. Conflicting conceptions of the South abound, and they are at the heart of the dispute over the act's renewal. Primarily at issue is what is known as Section 5: the provision in the legislation that protects against discriminatory changes in electoral procedures. Black or Hispanic ballots do not everywhere ensure actual power. The gerrymandering of district lines to the advantage of white voters, the institution of at-large elections, and the annexation of largely white suburbs -- such changes in municipal and other electoral systems can significantly diminish the impact of the ballots cast. Section 5 requires that all such alternations in the electoral systems of "covered" jurisdictions (mostly in the South) must be "precleared" by either the U.S. Department of Justice or the D.C. District Court.
Yet not all at-large voting or disadvantageously drawn district lines are discriminatory. At-large systems in the North are considered legitimate. A certains amount of ethnic-bloc voting is accepted as normal. And thus to the degree that the political process in a southern city or county has come to resemble that in the North, it too is normal.
From the outset, white southerners saw Section 5 as having reduced their region to the status of a conquered territory. Southern states, they said, were forced to go to Washington, hat in hand, to beg permission to change their electoral laws. Time has not assuaged this resentment, to which northern conservatives have now lent a sympathetic ear.
Of course, the conquered territory image was always hyperbole. And the fact is that abuses in the North were less likely to be racially motivated than those in the South. As recently as June 2, federal observers were sent to Mississippi to protect blacks against discrimination in an election.
Yet, the assertion, on the other side, that the problems in a particular Mississippi town on June 2 are typical of those in the entire South, and that the rhetoric of local control is nothing but a cover-up for white racism, is also wrong. When the Voting Rights Act was first passed, Section 5 was considered a draconian measure; only the severity of the problem warranted such a severe solution. Over time, the provision has come to be seen by some as part of the natural legislative landscape. In fact, as the Judiciary Committee has ostensibly recognized, it should not be, and in renewed and revised legislation, some jurisdictions should be allowed provisionally to "bail out" and regain autonomy over their local electoral process.
Which jurisdictions? Take a southern county that is approximately 40 percent black, that has never been a defendant in a suit alleging racing discrimination, that has a record of electing blacks to a school board and of appointing blacks to various boards, and that appears to distribute its public services equally among all sectors of the population. If elections at-large for the county commissioners replace an appointive system, should the Department of Justice have the power to insist on single-member districts on the grounds that with such districts more blacks would most likely be elected? Or should Section 5, the special remedy for a special wrong, no longer apply?
Settling that question requires answering a more basic one: namely, the meaning of electoral discrimination. We talk of the "dilution" of the minority vote, but in fact we don't know what a "full" vote is. To what, precisely, are minorities entitled? It is the fundamental issue that 15 years of experience and litigation have not yet settled. And as long as it remains unsettled, the basic goal of the Voting Rights Act will remain elusive. Is an integrated political process the aim -- a process in which minorities have electoral opportunities equal to those of whites, but are guaranteed no particular results? Or is the goal black and Hispanic political power with seats in proportion to the minority population?
These are just some of the questions a renewal of the Voting Rights Act raises, and the answers are far from obvious. William Jennings Bryan once said in reference to Prohibition: "This is a moral question. There is but one side to a moral question." In 1965, the passage of the act was just such an issue, but the precise form its extension should take is not. We need to be wary of our instincts, and give outselves time to think.