On Feb. 2, House Bill 44 was introduced into the North Carolina General Assembly, to repeal the literacy test from the North Carolina Constitution.
Section 4 of Article VI of the state constitution requires state voters to be able to read and write any part of the constitution in English, although this is not currently enforced after the passage of federal civil rights legislation.
Rep. Terry Brown (D-Mecklenberg), a primary sponsor of the bill, said this is not the first time that this legislation has been introduced. In 1969, this same proposed amendment failed.
“I think that the North Carolina that we’re living in today, here in 2023, is worlds different than the North Carolina in 1969, when Henry Frye first introduced this piece of legislation,” he said.
The aim is for this bill to be submitted for North Carolina residents to vote on during the statewide general election on Nov. 5, 2024. Citizens can vote for or against this legislation to decide whether or not the test will be repealed.
The bill has bipartisan support, with primary sponsors Brown and Rep. Kelly Alexander (D-Mecklenburg) supporting the bill as Democrats and Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincoln) and Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry, Wilkes) supporting the bill as Republicans.
“We do want to make sure that we’re showing the people of North Carolina now, regardless of what may have happened in the past, this is not what North Carolina stands for now,” Brown said.
Bob Phillips, the executive director for Common Cause North Carolina, emphasized that this bill’s wording is crucial.
“What’s always important in terms of a referendum passing or failing is making sure that the language is clear about what it is and what we’re asking voters to actually vote for or against,” he said.
Carol Moreno Cifuentes, the policy and programs manager for Democracy North Carolina, also said the bill's wording is critical. She explained that voters must know the reasoning behind the law's requirements.
“You're going to get voters that think that's actually not a bad idea because they don't understand how that was primarily used to suppress black voters from voting and how it's used to discriminate against people,” she said.
Moreno Cifuentes said education regarding the creation of the literacy test is also necessary so people understand how it was intended to target certain communities.
She said she believes bringing attention to the literacy test repeal can help voters understand how voter suppression can exist in different forms.
With N.C. being a fast-growing area, Phillips said failure to repeal the literacy test can give the perception of racism in the state.
“It probably does put a question mark as far as to the commitment North Carolina has to voting rights, even if they know this is nothing they’ve had to face,” he said. “It’s still that question of: 'why is this something that is still on the books?'"
Before the bill lands on the ballot for voting, however, Brown said there is a process the bill will have to go through while in both the state House and state Senate.
“There’s a lot of steps between now and ultimately 2024, but we’re hopeful that we can get through all the hurdles,” he said.
As of Feb. 6, the bill has passed its first reading and has been assigned to the Judiciary 2 House Standing Committee.
Brown said he does have confidence that the people will vote to repeal the test this time around.
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