Today the Senate takes up the much argued-over bill to extend the Voting Rights Act. The measure before it was passed by the House last October by a vote of 389 to 24, has 76 cosponsors in the Senate and enjoys the endorsement of Mr. Reagan. So passage is all but certain. Still, opposition persists--as Sen. East's column on our op-ed page today demonstrates.
The two main points Mr. East raises--will this bill lead to proportional representation, and does it discriminate against one section of the country?--are legitimate concerns. But they have been addressed squarely by the supporters of the bill, and changes have been made to reassure those who had reservations.
On the first of these concerns, the fact is that it never was the intention of the proponents of the bill to guarantee minority groups election victories in proportion to their numbers in the population. But to be sure that this did not happen, the Senate Judiciary Committee amended the bill. It now provides this guidance to courts considering ways of determining whether a voting system is discriminatory: "The extent to which members of a protected class have been elected to office in the State or political subdivision is one circumstance which may be considered, provided that nothing in this section establishes a right to have members of a protected class elected in numbers equal to their proportion in the population."@ The committee report goes into great detail on this point and specifically directs federal judges "to act in full accordance with the disclaimer" regarding any claimed right to proportional representation.
Does the bill discriminate against one section of the country? When the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, national criteria were established for deciding whether a political jurisdiction would have to get Washington's permission for any changes it wished to make in election laws. True, many states and counties in the South were covered. But so are counties in New York, Idaho, Hawaii, Wyoming, California, Arizona, Alaska, Texas, Colorado, Michigan, South Dakota and Oklahoma, and towns in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan. Amendments in 1975 protecting language minorities brought in additional counties in Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Under the provisions of the pending bill, any jurisdiction can be excused from the pre-clearance requirement if it has not discriminated against voters for a 10-year period and has taken positive steps to increase the opportunity for full minority participation in the political process. One-quarter of all covered jurisdictions should meet that test by 1984. Requiring every county in the United States to submit to pre-clearance is not only unnecessary--for most jurisdictions have no history of discrimination or low voter participation--but also harmful in that it would swamp federal officials with paper work, diverting them from areas where oversight is needed.
The bill reported by the Senate Judiciary Committee reflects compromise, common sense and the thoughtful consensus of legislators across the political spectrum. It should be passed.