Literacy test repeal sails through first House committee
On Wednesday, North Carolina legislators took a step toward repealing the literacy test requirement from the N.C. Constitution. Legislators heard House Bill 44 in the Judiciary 2 committee Wednesday. The bill would place a constitutional amendment on the 2024 general election ballot.
The bill has widespread support in the House, and Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, indicated support for repealing the literacy test requirement earlier this year. It “ought to be out of our constitution,” Berger said.
The literacy test requirement was added to the state Constitution in 1900, during Jim Crow.
Article VI, Section 4 of the North Carolina Constitution states: “Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.”
As it stands, the literacy test provision in the North Carolina Constitution is not enforceable and violates the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
North Carolina lawmakers attempted to remove the provision by putting it on the ballot in 1970, but voters rejected it.
The process for removal requires three-fifths of state legislators to put it on the ballot for the next election. Voters then decide whether they would like to keep the provision or remove it.
The lead sponsors of the bill in the state House are Reps. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg, Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, Terry Brown, D-Mecklenburg, and Sarah Stevens, R-Surry.
Stevens has been working on getting the language out of the Constitution for years, but there has been hesitancy to retry a repeal because voters rejected it the last time.
Earlier this year, Berger suggested legislators are interested in eliminating it now.
“It’s something that I’ve talked to people about. I think it’s something that ought to be out of our Constitution,” Berger said. “But remember, we tried one time in the past to have it out, and we put it to the people, and people refused to take it out of the Constitution. Now, that’s been 50 years,” he said, referencing the 1970 attempt.
“I do believe the stars might be aligning this year for this to be us to finally get this done,” said Brown to the Judiciary 2 committee.
Andy Jackson, Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity for the John Locke Foundation, spoke in support of the bill in the House committee on Wednesday.
“The literacy test was used to strip the voting rights of black North Carolinians,” said Jackson, warning legislators that “passing this repeal is not a slam dunk,” and noting it has failed previously when facing North Carolina voters.
“I’ve seen the polling numbers,” said Jackson. “55% [of likely voters] support and the rest either did not support repeal or were unsure. That is an uncomfortably close margin. I would urge all of the folks here, including my brothers and sisters in the nonprofit community, to avoid using repeal as a political bludgeon. There’s a temptation, I think, to try to use any tool you can to attack your opponents in an upcoming election, and if this is used as one of those tools, you could inadvertently drive support [for repeal] down.”
Locke has urged lawmakers to consider putting the constitutional amendment on the 2024 primary election ballot rather than the 2024 general election ballot, saying it helps remove the politics and concerns about confusing voters.
The North Carolina Bar Association and “Democracy North Carolina” also spoke in support of repealing the literacy test requirement.