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North Carolina lawmakers begin pushing literacy test repeal

March 30, 2021 GMT

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s constitution still includes an unenforceable relic of the Jim Crow era — a voter literacy test. Some state lawmakers have started the process again to do away with it.

A House judiciary committee voted unanimously on Tuesday for a bipartisan measure that would allow voters to decide next year whether to eliminate that section of the constitution.

The inoperable section says anyone attempting to register to vote must “be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.”

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This requirement was added to the North Carolina Constitution in 1900 and used to keep many Black citizens from casting ballots. Many other laws passed during that period attempted to keep African Americans second-class citizens and suppress voter turnout. The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 made literacy tests unlawful in Southern states, and later prohibited them nationally.

But in 1970, North Carolina voters weren’t willing to give up the constitutional language — they defeated an amendment to remove the section, even though six other constitutional questions that year were ratified by voters.

Legislators backing the measure say it’s long past time to remove what one bill sponsor called an “offensive provision.”

“For me, as a representative, to know that I took an oath to uphold the Constitution ... it does make you feel like you’re not truly a part of the state by still having that provision in there, knowing the history and the backstory of why it was enacted,” said first-term Rep. Terry Brown Jr., a Mecklenburg County Democrat, who is Black.

The House voted unanimously for a similar repeal referendum in 2013, but Senate didn’t advance it. A 2019 House measure never advanced. This year’s bill still must clear two more committees before reaching the House floor.

Three-fifths of the House and the Senate members must agree to schedule such a referendum, which would be set for November 2022 in the current bill.

Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Surry County Republican and another bill sponsor, warned that just because the repeal question is on the 2022 ballot doesn’t make its passage by voters a done deal.

“When you start talking about it, people on the ground say, ‘wait a minute, you ought to be able to read and write before you can vote,’” Stevens said. She said some groups have indicated they’d be willing to help educate voters on why the literacy test should be repealed.