The biggest civil rights battle on Capital Hill this year begins as the House decides whether to extend key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Few voices in Washington are publicly opposing the act, which is widely seen as the most effective legislation ever passed to protect the rights of minorities. President Reagan has continually voiced his support "in principle," as he said in his press conference last week. The Democratic House is expected to approve its extension by a wide margin in a vote Oct. 6.
However, it is far less certain what form of Voting Rights Act the newly conservative Washington will produce by the time the Senate acts, probably next spring.
A debate is heating up over the act's controversial requirement that nine targeted states and parts of 13 others preclear any proposed voting changes with the Justice Department in Washington. That provision, which expires next August unless Congress renews it, has angered many officials in the covered states, especially in the South.
Led by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R) of Illinois, conservatives in the House are pushing for easing the rules to allow some localities to bail out of the preclearance provision by showing they no longer discriminate against minority voters.
Mr. Hyde charges that a bail-out plan proposed by Democrats "really doesn't permit anybody to effectively bail out." He is especially critical of a requirement that no county or state can bail out if a lawsuit is pending. "Anybody who wants to invest $10 for a lawsuit can hold it up," he says.
Civil rights groups counter that one-fourth of the jurisdiction covered by the act would qualify for bailing out in 1984 under the Democratic proposal. Frivolous suits would be tossed out quickly by the courts, they maintain.
Both Hyde and the civil rights community expect the extension to win a big majority in the House. Even without the changes he wants, Hyde says he will vote for the bill, although only a few months ago he had opposed extending preclearance at all. Hearing some 100 witnesses testify about voting abuse changed his mind, he says.
According to Voting Rights Act supporters, no other legislation has so dramatically boosted the political power of minorities. Before the law was enacted, fewer than one-third of the blacks in the Deep South registered to vote. Many were locked out by all-white primaries or forced to take literacy tests or pay poll taxes to vote.
Today in much of the South, more than half of the eligible blacks are on the voting rolls. In the six Southern states covered by the Voting Rights Act, the number of blacks in elected jobs more than doubled from 964 in 1974 to 2,042 six years later. (In South Carolina the number jumped from 11 to 238 in 12 years.)
Despite progress, Voting Rights Act supporters warn that the success is fragile, that blacks still register to vote at a lower rate than whites, and that counties, cities, and states have cooked up a new brew of methods to dilute the black vote.
Some towns have annexed white areas to assure white control, while others switch to at-large voting for all local council members, so that minorities have virtually no chance of winning. Another charge is "racial gerrymandering," in which a voting district boundary is skewed to weaken minority voting strength.
During House Judiciary Committee hearings, one critic accused a Mississippi county of drawing a voting district in the shape of a "Tyrannosaurus Rex" to assure white control.
Civil rights groups, and even Representative Hyde, say that the preclearance requirement is the only practical watchdog for voting rights in these cases. The House will almost certainly vote to continue it, but a more conservative Republican Senate will have it say later. And waiting on the Senate side is Judiciary chairman Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, who has long maitained that the act discriminates against the South.
Meanwhile, the President has not yet played his card on extending the act. A department of Justice study on the Voting Rights Act went to the White House Oct. 1, and Mr. Reagan has not yet taken a stand on the specifics.