LATER TODAY the president will be making final revisions of his State of the Union message. Among other subjects, he is expected to announce the administration's position on extension of the Voting Rights Act. The attorney general's scheduled appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee was postponed last week because that position had not yet been firmly established. Until the policy is set in type there is still time to urge the president to support the House-passed version of this bill.
The House bill reaffirms the nation's commitment to protect the most important right guaranteed by the Constitution to all our citizens--the right to vote. When minorities are denied full participation in the electoral process, representative government is flawed. The Voting Rights Act, passed originally in 1965, has been enormously successful. Voter registration of minorities in the covered states has gone from 29 percent to over 50 percent in the last 17 years. The number of black elected officials in these same states has increased from 158 to 1,813 in the last 12 years. But as Professor Howard Ball's article on the opposite page demonstrates, efforts are still being made to subvert the law and dilute the voting power of minorities. The Voting Rights Act is the most powerful weapon available to defeat these efforts.
Controversy has centered around Section 2 of the bill, as passed by the House. This provision would allow courts to consider a number of factors, including discriminatory effects of a law, in deciding whether that law denies or abridges the right to vote. Opponents of the measure say this would require courts to strike down any voting system that didn't result in proportional representation. Not true. It would simply reinstate the standard used by the courts before the Supreme Court decision in Mobile v. Bolden, a 1980 case requiring proof that the drafters of the law in question intended to discriminate--a standard that is virtually impossible to meet since the legislators in question have all been dead for years.
In earlier cases the Supreme court had considered the totality of circumstances--including election results, responsiveness of elected officials to the needs of minorities, nominating procedures and history of discrimination--to determine whether the challenged system really shut out racial minorities. In a 1971 case, Whitcomb v. Chavis, the court upheld at-large elections in Indianapolis even though black voter strength was diluted, because there was not sufficient additional evidence of discrimination. Two years later, in White v. Regester, the court struck down a similar system in Texas because other evidence of discrimination was present. That is the standard to which the House-passed bill would return.
The president has received some very bad advice on civil rights matters from his associates in recent weeks. The same people who told him that it would be wise to restore tax-exempt status to segregated schools are urging him to oppose Section 2 as passed by the House. This bill was passed by a vote of 389 to 24. It has been cosponsored by 61 senators-- enough even to stop a filibuster. The president should listen to his friends on the Hill and not just those in his own offices in deciding what message on civil rights he sends to the country tonight.