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Finding common ground on voters' rights

To hail ''compromise'' on the Voting Rights Act is not to say that there can be any compromise on the right of all Americans to vote. Preserving that right will continue to require wholehearted individual and community efforts beyond the letter of the law. But a strong Voting Rights Act remains a beacon for democratic action. It will be the stronger for limitations that do not destroy its thrust but permit President Reagan and other conservatives to withdraw opposition and join in a national commitment to electoral equity.

Kudos to the Senate Judiciary Committee for overcoming deep divisions to make such an outcome possible. The full Senate now has the opportunity to vote in good time to ensure passage before the August date when a key safeguard provision would otherwise expire.

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This provision requires that a number of states and other jurisdictions with a history of election discrimination obtain federal ''preclearance'' before making electoral changes. The bill overwhelmingly passed by the House would make preclearance permanent. The Senate compromise is to extend it for 25 years (with review after 15 years) instead of the 10 years favored by the White House. Both House and Senate bills enable jurisdictions to get off the preclearance list as early as 1984. This ''bail-out'' option says that two years after enactment a jurisdiction can win release by demonstrating it has had a clean record for 10 years.

Unlike the preclearance provision, the most controversial part of the legislation could affect any state or other election jurisdiction. It was placed in the House bill to pin down Congress's intention that violations could be proved on the basis of discriminatory results,m without going back in history to determine discriminatory intent.m The clarification became necessary after a 1980 Supreme Court interpretation that intent had to be found.

The Senate Judiciary Committee split on the issue, with administration support for the senators favoring intent. The latter argued not to ignore results but to consider them as part of the evidence in determining intent. They warned that, despite a disclaimer in the House bill, the results test opened the door to requiring proportional representation according to minority status. The compromise was to keep the results criterion but to make it depend on total circumstances, not just election outcomes -- and to deny any right of minorities to be elected in proportion to their numbers in the population. The total circumstances might include at-large systems that dilute minority votes; registration procedures; residency requirements; access to the political process.

Speaking of the political process, it is a rather wonderful one that brought about the Voting Rights Act in the first place and now is working to save it. One practical reason for guaranteeing access to all is the importance of bringing individuals to the surface who can make the system operate.

A word here for the example of the Senate Judiciary Committee, with a special footnote for Senator Dole, who managed to find some common ground for Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch -- no mean feat. Mr. Dole, the hatchet-tongued running mate of Gerald Ford in 1976, is edging toward a great-compromiser role, whether on budgets, arms control, or now voting rights. It would be a shame if either results or intent had kept him out of the political process.

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