Two corrections should be made to Article VI, “Suffrage and Eligibility to Office,” of the North Carolina State Constitution this year. The first would remove a racist relic of our past, and the second would add protection of our voting rights against ambitious politicians of the future.
First, we should repeal the literacy test from the constitution. Article VI, Section 4 of the North Carolina State Constitution states: “Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.” It was added to the constitution in 1900, two years after a white supremacist campaign put Democrats back in power and also the Wilmington race riot of 1898. It was part of a set of laws and procedures designed to prevent Blacks from voting.
While the section has no obvious racial component, its application was highly discriminatory. A white voter might have been asked to read a relatively simple section (if they were asked to read anything). However, a black person wishing to vote might have been required to read and demonstrate an understanding of some of the constitution’s longer and more complex sections “that even legal experts could not answer.”
The literacy test was made inoperative by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Legislators attempted to remove the literacy test from the constitution, but voters rejected its removal in 1970.
Legislators have been reluctant to bring it to the voters again since then for two reasons. First, voters may see the section as a reasonable requirement for voting. They may also see it as not discriminatory on its face, as the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections in 1959.
The second change we should make to Article VI is to add a citizens-only amendment.
There is a growing movement across the United States to allow noncitizens to vote. New York City recently joined parts of California, Maryland, and Vermont in granting foreigners the right to vote. That ordinance is working its way through the New York court system.
Democratic attorney Marc Elias’ organization wrote positively about the New York ordinance for noncitizen voting, calling it a move to “expand voting rights.” That is a sign that progressive groups may pursue further efforts to expand noncitizen voting across America that, according to the online news source Politico, would “reshape local politics forever.”
Voting in North Carolina and federal elections is currently limited to citizens by statute. But who has, and does not have, the right to vote is fundamental to our republic. Voting rights should be limited to those who are bound together as citizens. That principle should be enshrined in our foundational document as protection against temporary majorities who would seek to reshape our politics “forever” by granting noncitizens the right to vote in state and local elections.
Citizen-only voting is associated with the political right but has been broadly popular everywhere citizens have had an opportunity to vote on it. Citizen-only voting amendments easily passed in recent referendum votes in the conservative states of Alabama, Florida, and North Dakota. But voters in blue Colorado also decisively passed it, 63 percent to 37 percent, in 2020.
Offering the amendments as a package could create bipartisan momentum for their adoption in the General Assembly. Their placement on the same ballot this November, with an accompanying “yes on both” campaign from political leaders, would help assure that majorities of North Carolina voters support both amendments.
Removing the literacy test and adding citizen-only voting to the North Carolina Constitution would be essential reforms to our foundational document. The General Assembly should put those amendments before North Carolina voters this year.
Andy Jackson is the Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation.