Administration Voting Plan Draws Fire : Activists Oppose Changes in Rights Act on Minority Challenges
William Bradford Reynolds, the nation’s chief civil rights enforcer, Wednesday defended Reagan Administration proposals to make it more difficult for minorities to challenge discriminatory voting practices such as gerrymandering.
At issue are proposed revisions in regulations the Justice Department uses to decide whether it should challenge changes in election procedures by local jurisdictions.
Testifying before a House Judiciary subcommittee, Reynolds described the proposals as merely “updating” a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that deals with the challenges. But California Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), chairman of the subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, said that the proposed changes “would do great harm” to the act, and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), a committee member, accused Reynolds of “a scam.”
Shifting the Burden
Frank R. Parker, a visiting fellow at the Washington-based Joint Center for Political Studies, testified after Reynolds and asserted that the revisions “would severely undermine” the act.
Under current regulations, local jurisdictions must show that changes they make in voting procedures would not be discriminatory. The Administration is proposing to shift the burden of proof to individuals and groups charging discrimination.
Another revision would permit reduction of minority voting strength in any case except those in which the reduction was “significant.” However, Edwards complained that the proposed changes do not define what would be significant.
The hearing, during which Reynolds spoke softly, often conferring with aides, was another in a series of voting rights skirmishes between rights advocates and the Reagan Administration. Civil rights advocates view the latest proposals as an effort to roll back voting rights, while the Administration contends that the revisions are needed to make the Justice Department’s procedures conform to court decisions and 1982 congressional changes in the law.
Asserting that the volatility of the proposals means that they should get further study before they go into effect, Edwards repeatedly requested that the Administration delay final publication in the Federal Register.
Reynolds retorted that enough comments already have been gathered from the public, and he asked “how many years would you expect me to review these comments” before issuing guidelines. However, Reynolds did make a concession of sorts, agreeing to postpone the regulations for another two months.
Nevertheless, Reynolds’ past continued to haunt him, as an angry Conyers recalled that he failed to win Senate approval of his nomination to the No. 3 post at the Justice Department and said he was “not fooling the American people anymore. We see . . . what you have done” to civil rights. Conyers called the voting proposals “another scam coming to the Congress.” Reynolds is assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
The congressman’s comments symbolize broad and deep opposition to the Administration’s proposed changes to the voting regulations. Among those strenuously objecting to them are the League of Women Voters, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Testifying before Edwards’ subcommittee last week, Judith A. Sanders-Castro, an attorney for the Latino group, said the proposals would create “tremendous loopholes” for jurisdictions to avoid advance clearance of election changes. She called the proposals a demonstration of the Administration’s “policy of abdication” in voting rights enforcement.
The advance clearance requirement applies to nine states where discriminatory practices historically have deprived minorities of voting rights: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Also, parts of eight other states, including California, are required to get advance approval of changes. In California, the law applies to Kings, Merced, Monterey and Yuba counties.