THE RIGHT to vote, to participate in the political process, is the fundamental privilege of a free citizen because it enables him to exercise and protect all the others. The Constitution and various laws guarantee that this primary right shall not be infringed because of race, and though in practice various jurisdictions have failed to meet that standard, great progress has been made in the 20 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Cases now coming before the courts no longer involve clearly discriminatory poll taxes, literacy tests or physical and economic intimidation. Today's much more difficult cases are concerned with practices that allegedly dilute minority voting strength to the extent that they are, in fact, discriminatory.

This term, the Supreme Court will hear such a case challenging North Carolina's redistricting plan for the state Senate and House of Representatives. Civil rights lawyers have challenged the state's use of multi-member districts in some areas of the state where there is a sufficient concentration of black voters to form majority black single-member districts. Litigants on both sides of the case agree that the law does not guarantee proportional election results to any racial group. There is also agreement that if a redistricting plan had been formulated expressly to exclude blacks or if it had resulted in clearly excluding them from the political process -- as evidenced by a variety of factors -- the plan would be in violation of the law. The problem in North Carolina, as in most of the recent cases, is in evaluating the effects of a given voting plan and determining from that evidence whether the plan is discriminatory. In most of the challenged districts, blacks have been elected to office -- in some cases, in greater proportion than their presence in the electorate. This alone does not conclusively prove that the system is not biased. But it is also true that an increasing number of whites -- though not yet a majority -- is voting for blacks. There are no barriers to minority registration, party affiliation or candidacy, no slating of candidates dominated by whites and no allegation that black voters have been ignored by white candidates. Nevertheless, a district court invalidated the plan after taking into consideration 1)the lingering effects of voter discrimination before the 1970s, 2)continuing bloc voting along racial lines, 3)the majority-vote requirement in primaries, 4)appeals to racial prejudice in campaigns and 5)the failure of the state to offer a policy justification for the form of the challenged districts.

Legal briefs in this case do not even consider the ultimate question of whether black citizens fare better when they constitute 30 percent of the voters in each of three districts or 90 percent in one and zero in two others. That is a political and not a legal question and must be settled by the voters themselves. But the court's responsibility in interpreting the Voting Rights Act has profound political consequences, too. It has often been necessary for judges to intervene in that process in order to protect the rights of minorities. But as conditions improve and the most obvious forms of discrimination disappear, it becomes more difficult to distinguish constitutional requirements from mere political goals.