RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A House committee advanced a measure Wednesday to remove the literacy test from the North Carolina Constitution, as a bipartisan coalition aims to repeal that provision which had been used to prevent Black residents from voting.
The literacy test was among various barriers to voting put in place during the Jim Crow era. Though it was rendered unenforceable by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it remains in the state Constitution.
“We have to recognize that we’re in a different place in history, that the dynamics in this state are different,” said Rep. Kelly Alexander (D-Mecklenburg).
It would ultimately be up to voters to decide whether to repeal the literacy test. First, three-fifths of the state House and Senate have to agree to put the proposed Constitutional amendment on the ballot. Then, it would take a simple majority vote by the public to repeal it. That vote would occur in November 2024.
The literacy test requires that people registering to vote “shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.”
Alexander said the test was often used subjectively by voting officials to keep Black people from being able to register.
Republican Senate leader Phil Berger says he would support repealing it.
“It’s something that’s a relic of the past and not a particularly pleasing relic. I think it would be better if our constitution did not include that,” said Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham). “I think this may be the year, but I’ve been wrong before.”
In 1970, state lawmakers at the time put the question on the ballot, and voters chose not to repeal the literacy test. Some current legislators are concerned about the possibility of that happening again.
Andy Jackson, who studies elections at the conservative John Locke Foundation, supports repealing the provision but is also concerned about how close the vote could be.
“Certainly it would be an embarrassment for the state,” he said. “The way it was applied was clearly racist and was used to take the votes away from Black folks. So, we want to make that as clear as possible and we want to make it as non-political as possible.”
The Locke Foundation polled voters about the issue in 2021. They asked them whether they would support or oppose “a constitutional amendment to repeal the requirement that every person presenting himself for voter registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.”
In the poll, 39 percent of people said they would support a repeal while 46 percent said they would oppose. The remaining 15 percent said “neither” or that they were unsure.
Jackson said he’s concerned a vote could be “uncomfortably close” and worries about the potential for the matter to be politicized during the 2024 election.
“There is a danger that something that looks like it has such broad appeal, you want to attach yourself to it, you want to bash your opponents with it,” he said. “I just kind of wanted to send a signal that maybe this one issue would be something that we would just put aside as far as politics during the election.”
Alexander said he wants to find a way to make clear to voters in the wording of the question that the literacy test is already unenforceable and wants there to be bipartisan public education campaign about the issue leading up to the election.