Push Is On To Overturn Laws in North and West

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While efforts to overturn unfair election laws have been largely focused on the South--the traditional battleground for civil-rights conflicts--blacks and other minority-group voters are beginning to challenge the political status quo in a number of communities in Northern and Western states.

A recent round of court cases in Illinois, for instance, has created new black-majority districts for school boards and other governmental bodies in several cities, allowing blacks to win seats on those panels for the first time in this century.

And other racial groups protected by federal civil-rights law, such as Hispanics and Native Americans, are moving in various locales to increase their representation on school boards and other local government bodies.

For years, civil-rights advocates note, these groups have faced many of the same obstacles to political power that have confronted blacks--discriminatory housing patterns, dilution of voting strength, and white hostility.

Hispanic voters in Texas have been especially aggressive in seeking relief in the courts, according to Rolando Rios, a San Antonio-based lawyer who has argued more than 40 such cases over the past 10 years.

Mr. Rios is currently embroiled in a prolonged battle against school officials in Midland, Tex., a city of about 90,000 in the western part of the state.

Despite the district's sizable Hispanic minority, the Midland school board is completely Anglo-American, Mr. Rios said. He blamed this on an at-large election system that allows the Anglo majority to choose all of the board's members.

Such a system, he charged, helps perpetuate a near monopoly on political control by the affluent, white-collar Anglos who work for the many oil companies with offices in Midland.

The school board, Mr. Rios noted, controls the property tax levied on the city's substantial number of expensive homes. "That's a bastion of power which the local establishment is unwilling to give up," he said.

In several other Texas communities, Hispanics are waging similar battles, Mr. Rios said.

Native Americans, too, are pressing for change, according to other voting-rights activists. Laughlin McDonald, the Southern regional director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Indian voters recently won a court decision in Big Horn County, Mont., banning at-large elections there.

Changes in the federal voting-rights law, which eased the burden of proof for plaintiffs, have helped spur the growth of litigation outside the South, legal experts said.

Before the Congress amended the law in 1982, they noted, minority voters were required to prove that voting laws were passed with discriminatory intent. But this was especially difficult for minority groups other than blacks, because, for the most part, they had not suffered under the same kind of legally sanctioned segregation that affected Southern blacks.

The historical record of these "Jim Crow" laws, the experts explained, often provided black plaintiffs with damning evidence of biased intent, evidence that was not available to other minority groups.

But some legal experts caution that this single historical interpretation can be overstated. Mr. McDonald, for instance, noted that Native Americans in Montana were legally denied the right to vote until 1924.

"We have documented instances of intimidation and obstruction by local voting authorities as recent as a few years ago," he said.

James Craven, the lawyer handling the Illinois cases, made much the same point about discrimination in Northern cities. The city of Springfield, a defendant in one of those cases, maintained separate schools, hospitals, and even cemeteries for blacks for many years, he noted.

Segregation, he said, "may have not been as intentional or as pervasive [as in the South], but the impact was the same."--wm

Vol. 07, Issue 14

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