Literacy Test for Blacks Still in NC Constitution

By Cash Michaels –

If you’re an African American voter in the state of North Carolina, the state’s Constitution requires you to take a literacy test before you cast your next ballot.

Don’t worry, federal law has long rendered this “requirement” null and void, so don’t expect anyone in or out of uniform at your local voting precinct attempting to force you to prove you can properly “…read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.”

Unenforceable, But Still in Place

But at the same time—and what’s still most troubling about this—is that try as they might, state lawmakers just don’t seem to be able to get the literacy test requirement officially scratched from the state’s Constitution.

And in fact, if the majority of North Carolina voters in November 2022 don’t agree to get rid of the requirement once and for all, it remains on the books.

Toothless, but it stays.

Rep. Kelly Alexander, Jr.
Rep. Kelly Alexander, Jr.

On March 22 of this year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg NC House Rep. Kelly Alexander, Jr., a Democrat, filed the bipartisan “House Bill 337—Constitutional Amendment to Repeal Literacy Test.”

“It’s just an insult to the African American citizens of North Carolina, and to any right-thinking citizens,” Rep. Alexander told Washington Monthly.

“Yes” Means “No”

Alexander’s bill would repeal Section 4 of Article VI of the Constitution of the State of North Carolina, which states, “Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.”

Section 2 of the HB337 specifies that the question “shall be submitted to the qualified voters of the State at the statewide general election to be held on November 8, 2022, which election shall be conducted under the laws governing elections in the State …” and asks voters to cast their ballots for or against the repeal of Article VI, Section 4.

This is the part where Black voters need to pay particular attention, because it is here where this measure could fall on its face, as it apparently has before.

“If a majority of votes cast on the question are in favor of the amendment set out in Section 1 of this act, the State Board of Elections shall certify the amendment [eliminating the literacy test] to the Secretary of State.… If a majority of votes cast on the question are against the amendment as set out in Section 1 of this act, the amendment shall have no effect”—and the literacy test will remain in place.

In plain language, a vote FOR the amendment is a vote AGAINST the literacy test.

Racist Legacy

So, you’re understandably asking yourself, why hasn’t the state of North Carolina gotten rid of this clearly unconstitutional state Constitutional Amendment long before now?

The backstory is fascinating. It was 1899 when the NC General Assembly passed the controversial amendment. Section 4 of Article VI of the NC Constitution was deemed appropriate by the US Supreme Court in 1959 because of the very broad way it was written (see Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections). That allowed local boards of elections to use the requirement differently when it came to Black and White voters.

For example, a White voter might (or might not) be asked to read a short, simple phrase or sentence, which they could even be coached to memorize beforehand. Black voters, on the other hand, could be given a long, convoluted passage full of brackets, parentheses, abbreviations, and references to other parts of the Constitution—and then be required to explain the meaning of what they had read.

But when the 1965 Voting Rights Act effectively declawed North Carolina’s literacy test voting requirement, the state was in no hurry to officially remove it from its books. Finally, in 1969, someone in the state legislature decided the Constitutional requirement needed to go, and the question was put before the state’s voters in a referendum.

But 56% disagreed.

Try, and try again

During the 2017–18 long session of the NC General Assembly, the state House unanimously passed HB 148, but it died in the Senate Rules Committee.

And during the 2019-20 session, again, even with bipartisan support in the House, the measure did not even make out of the House Rules Committee.

Democrats are frustrated that a question so obvious seems so intractable. Republicans, who have been in charge of the General Assembly since 2011, seem more embarrassed than anything else that they can’t rid the state’s Constitution of this ugly constitutional blight on their watch, though their party is actively engaged in legislating numerous other voter suppression schemes in lieu of the November 2020 election. Yet it’s their own leaders who have kept it from passing out of the Rules Committees that they chair.

This year the open question remains: what will become of House Bill 337, if it passes the House? Does it get to the Senate, and if so, what happens there? Will GOP leaders allow it to pass, or even get a vote? And if it passes both houses of the legislature and faces a statewide referendum in November 2022, what will the state’s voters do? Will they, again, vote to keep an illegal, unconstitutional, void provision in the state Constitution that literally disenfranchised tens of thousands of Black voters for more than half a century?

“Passing this bill with bipartisan support and letting the people of North Carolina have the final say is needed now more than ever to show that our state is moving forward and truly believes in progress,” says bill co-sponsor Rep. Terry Brown (D-Mecklenburg).

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