by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
I spoke in favor of House Bill 44, removing the literacy test from the North Carolina Constitution at a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee on the morning of March 1. My prepared comments are below:
I am Andy Jackson with the John Locke Foundation.
I speak in favor of House Bill 44, the constitutional amendment to repeal the literacy test.
No one here needs a history lesson on how the literacy test, combined with the grandfather clause, stripped voting rights from Black North Carolinians. I applaud the current General Assembly for rising to remove it.
But I’ve also come to offer a warning.
While repealing the literacy test is supported on both sides of the aisle here, there is no guarantee that it will pass a vote of the people. In fact, the last time the General Assembly put repealing the literacy test up for a vote in 1970, the people rejected it.
This is not 1970 and repeal has a better chance of passing in a vote next year. Still, a May 2022 poll found that 55% of respondents favored repealing the literacy test while the rest either opposed or were unsure. That is an uncomfortably close margin.
Some voters may read or hear about the seemingly innocuous language of the literacy test and believe, as the United State Supreme Court ruled in Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections (1959) that “The North Carolina requirement … does not, on its face,” violate the United States Constitution.
In short, repealing the literacy test is no slam dunk.
First, while legislators should avoid editorializing in the text of constitutional amendments, adding language noting the literacy test has been prohibited by the federal Voting Rights Act since 1965 gives voters important context. The [committee substitution] change in the amendment’s language helps.
Second, and this applies to my colleagues in the nonprofit community as well as legislators, we must not succumb to the temptation to use the literacy test as a political bludgeon against our opponents. Each time we do so, we run the risk of driving down support for repeal.
I had prepared a two-minute comment, but the committee only allowed one minute for speaking. Here is a video of my shorter actual comment to the committee.