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Repealing literacy test would change nothing but it is still a good idea

AndyJackson

Andy Jackson

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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

North Carolina has a literacy test for voting enshrined in its constitution. The General Assembly should put a constitutional amendment to repeal it on the ballot as soon as possible.

The language of Article VI, Section 4 of the NC Constitution is simple: "Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language." According to the US Supreme Court, that section is nondiscriminatory on race on its face.

However, the application of that provision was anything but nondiscriminatory. For example, a white applicant might be asked to read a relatively simple section like Article VI, Section 4 (if he or she were asked to read anything), while a black applicant might be required to read and demonstrate understanding of some of the longer and more complex sections of the document.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 functionally banned the use of literacy tests nationwide, a ban that was upheld by the US Supreme Court. The General Assembly responded by proposing an amendment to the N.C. Constitution to bring it formally in line with federal law by removing the literacy test. However, voters rejected that amendment in a statewide referendum in 1970 by a vote of 279,132 to 355,347. It has remained as an unenforceable part of the state constitution ever since.

There have been several attempts to try to repeal the literacy test since then, although there is some fear that voters might reject the amendment again:

"There's a worry about what might happen with that" if it were defeated again, said [House Speaker Tim] Moore, R-Cleveland, adding that he has no idea how voters might respond to another ballot question on the issue. "I would hope that amendment would pass overwhelmingly. It's certainly something I would support."

Members of the House are trying again this session. House Bill 314, sponsored by Kelly M. Alexander Jr., D-Mecklenburg, Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, Michael Speciale, R-Craven, and Garland E. Pierce, D-Hoke, is essentially a copy of a bill that unanimously passed the state House in the last session. That bill was not taken up by NC Senate before that session ended.

The only downside to H314 in my eyes is that it does not give voters the opportunity to repeal the literacy test until the general election on November 3, 2020. I would prefer that the amendment be included on the ballot for the March 3, 2020 primary. A March vote would get the literacy test out of our state constitution that much sooner. Setting the amendment vote on a primary date would also lessen its potential use as a partisan bludgeon. Such partisan grandstanding by politicians would likely have the perverse effect of driving down support for the amendment.

While there are legitimate debates about various election laws in North Carolina, there is no serious disagreement about the literacy test. It is a barnacle on North Carolina's ship of state that should be scraped off as soon as possible.

Andy Jackson is the elections policy fellow at the Civitas Institute.

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