State lawmakers are trying to remove the defunct literacy test clause from the North Carolina Constitution. This clause has been inoperative since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and is unenforceable. Seen as a vestige of Jim Crow, a constitutional amendment to repeal the embarrassing clause passed the NC House unanimously and was sponsored by Republicans Charles Jeter and Harry Warren. If the Senate passes the bill, then it will be up to voters to ratify the amendment in November 2014.
Voters already had the chance to repeal the literacy test clause – all the way back in 1970. Its rejection then was widely seen as a referendum on the Civil Rights Movement, which was unpopular among many white North Carolinians. The state has changed quite a bit, though, so the amendment should pass easily. Right?
Not so fast. Last week, PPP found that there was substantial opposition to revising the constitution in this manner. So what’s the problem? Are North Carolina voters a bunch of racists? Not exactly. But it does mean that voters might need some “education”. It could be that it has been so long since the Civil Rights Movement that voters no longer associate literacy tests with Jim Crow, or perhaps they feel that society has made such strides in this area that a literacy test could be administered fairly, without regard to race.
It could also be due to simple confusion. Voters get confused – especially over the telephone and when they’re being asked to repeal something. First they have to figure out whether or not they support what the legislature wants to revoke. Check. Then there’s always the chance that voters will vote ‘yes’ with the intent of keeping the clause or ‘no’ in order to get rid of it.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle to amendment-supporters is the language of the clause itself. It’s fairly benign:
“Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.”
No Jim Crow here. Obviously, no indication on the ballot that the provision is unconstitutional and has been for almost half a century. And the clause that lawmakers want struck out contains several Tea Party buzzwords. Constitution. English. The right is already suspicious of mass voter registration. See “low information voter” – a term once applied to low income Republicans in rural areas who were perceived as voting against their interests. Now, it’s synonymous with Obama voters. What, the Tea Party will ask, is so hard about requiring that voters be able to read and write the English language?
Supporters could be in for a bigger fight than they realized, especially if some on the right believe that repealing the literacy test is more than just symbolic. Perhaps Tea Party activists will come under the impression that a literacy test repeal will open the floodgates of uneducated, illiterate voters who will no doubt register with the Democratic Party. Under such a delusion the effort to maintain the state’s literacy test could become something of a moral crusade.
North Carolina voters rejected a literacy test repeal in 1970. While it’s unlikely that literacy test repeal will fail again in 2014, the support for keeping it in the constitution could be surprisingly high. Tea Party voters already don’t like the idea of illiterates or non-English speakers voting – and from the survey, it’s possible than even more moderate voters agree with this sentiment. According to the poll, 26% support literacy test repeal, 36% are against.
Notably, repealing the literacy test has the strongest opposition with black voters. It’s clear that amendment supporters have some work to do. They shouldn’t overestimate the support of their position with the public – or underestimate the effect of benign ballot language.
John Wynne is the “conservative voice” at PoliticsNC, where he also provides polling analysis and commentary on legislative campaigns. When not writing about politics, he enjoys gardening and listening to opera. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.