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Blacks say right to vote isn't enough. Wave of civil rights lawsuits challenges local voting practices in US

Blacks are bringing a host of new cases before the Justice Department and the courts challenging local and state election practices. As a result of 1982 revisions in the landmark 20-year-old Voting Rights Act, dozens of challenges are being made, most of them in the South, against ``at large'' election of local governing bodies. In an at-large election, candidates run for office communitywide instead of in small districts.

Civil rights leaders say that simply allowing blacks and minorities the right to vote is not enough to ensure their equal participation in the political process.

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Blacks must push to change government structures so that they can elect representatives to local governments in districts that are small enough to have a majority of black voters, says Earl Shinhoster, Southern regional director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Civil rights leaders say lawsuits challenging election procedures can be expected not only in the South but across the nation. Unless election practices are changed to allow blacks to elect their own representatives, these leaders say, blacks will not have an effective voice.

``The problems have changed,'' Paul Hancock of the Justice Department's voting rights office says. ``It used to be that blacks were openly told they couldn't register to vote. That doesn't exist today.'' Now, he says, blacks are trying to demonstrate that even though they can vote, they cannot elect blacks to local governments.

Before 1982, black challenges to at-large election systems were stymied by a United States Supreme Court decision that said blacks had to prove the election procedure was created with the intent of racial discrimination. Such proof was often difficult to find.

But revisions in the Voting Rights Act in 1982 said blacks only had to prove that the election process had the effect of racial discrimination, not the intent. Since then the number of suits has jumped.

Since 1982, the Justice Department alone has joined in 12 suits brought under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act that challenge at-large voting procedures, Mr. Hancock says. And it is also participating in nine private suits where local governments have challenged the constitutionality of the 1982 Voting Rights Act amendments.

With the law requiring local governments to pay not only their legal fees, but also the legal fees of the plaintiffs, many governments are choosing to negotiate rather than fight, says Atlanta's Laughlin McDonald, southern regional director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

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``Georgia is the leader in the change,'' he says. ``At the rate things are going, our goal of doing away with at-large voting in the state is attainable.''

Black leaders say they still have a long way to go toward achieving full equality under the 1965 act. While the obvious barriers to black voting have mostly disappeared, they say, many governments are still structured so that blacks have a hard time electing city council members and county commissioners.

``We have found 20 years after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, that there is still a lack of representation of blacks across the board, especially in counties and cities,'' says the NAACP's Mr. Shinhoster. ``We have seen that blacks are prone to vote for whites, but whites can't vote for blacks.''

North Carolina has become a test case for blacks seeking a better chance to elect state representatives and senators.

Blacks there challenged a redistricting plan drawn up by the legislature because it contained multimember districts that had white majorities, even though those districts could have been divided into single-member districts and some of them would have black majorities.

A three-judge US District Court sided with the black plaintiffs and ordered the state to come up with a new redistricting plan to include some black-majority districts. The state appealed the case to the US Supreme Court.

``An all-white court found racially polarized voting in the state and that blacks would not have a fair chance to participate in an election,'' says Julius LeVonne Chambers, who is handling the NAACP case. ``We're satisfied with the plan the state devised after the court's decision.''

But Kathleen McGuan, who is handling the case for the state, says the state's original plan was fair to blacks.

``The crux of it is that blacks in North Carolina have had the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice,'' she says. ``They register and vote freely, and there simply is no barrier to their participation. The Voting Rights Act does not guarantee that blacks can elect someone of their choosing, but that they have equal access to the system. And that's what they have.''

County by county, city by city, groups such as the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the ACLU are challenging voting systems that allow public officials to be elected by voters at large.

They note that only 534 county commissioners in the US are black. While that is up from 267 a decade ago, it constitutes only about 1 percent of the total.

The Justice Department already has been successful in changing at-large election systems to single-member districts in such places as Chevez County, N.M., Mobile, Ala., and Dorchester County, Md., Hancock says.

NAACP attorney Margaret Ford says her organization will push for single-member districts in Northern cities. Toledo, Ohio, may be the group's first target.

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