In the late 19th Century, Southern states began to enact literacy tests to prevent African-Americans from casting a ballot. At the time, black voters were up to seven and a half times as likely to be unable to read as white voters, so requiring voters to prove their reading skills was an effective way of making the electorate more white. Many states also enacted laws effectively exempting whites from the test, such as by allowing a white voting official to subjectively determine that certain people should be allowed to vote even if they could not pass the literacy test. Indeed, the phrase “grandfather clause” refers to Jim Crow era laws that exempted white voters from voting restrictions so long as their grandfathers enjoyed the right to vote prior to the South’s defeat in the Civil War.
Literacy tests were eventually rendered illegal under the Voting Rights Act, but North Carolina’s state constitution still calls for one. Now, a bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to fix that:
Earlier this month, two African-American Democrats, Reps. Kelly Alexander of Charlotte and Mickey Michaux of Durham, joined with two white Republicans, Reps. Charles Jeter of Huntersville and Harry Warren of Salisbury, to introduce House Bill 311, which would put before voters an amendment to eliminate Article VI, Section 4 of the state constitution that says, “Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.”
An earlier effort to repeal the provision failed in 1970 — the only one of six proposed constitutional changes that North Carolina voters did not approve that year. The clause remains unenforceable under Section 201 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits state and local governments from requiring voters to read and write.
Although this repeal effort is largely symbolic so long as the Voting Right Act prevents North Carolina’s literacy test requirement from being enforced, repealing it is nonetheless important because there is no guarantee that the Roberts Court won’t someday strip away the federal government’s power to protect against literacy tests and similar devices intended to disenfranchise voters, just as they appear poised to cut back another part of the landmark voting law this term.