NC lawmakers try to get rid of outdated literacy test

jfrank@newsobserver.comMay 13, 2013 

Mickey Michaux

MLEWIS — submitted

— North Carolina lawmakers want to ask voters one more time to remove what they call a stain from the state constitution.

House lawmakers approved a constitutional amendment Monday to repeal the state’s literacy test for voting, a provision aimed at restricting black voters that has remained in the state’s guiding document long after it was voided.

“All we’re asking is just for it be taken out, so it won’t be a burden to us,” said Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat and the first black U.S. attorney in the South since Reconstruction.

The measure is one of two elections-related bills that won approval at the start of a crucial week at the N.C. General Assembly called “crossover.” By Thursday, most legislation needs to pass one chamber to stay alive for the remainder of the two-year session, though there are numerous ways to revive dead bills. A crowded calendar prompted the House to waive its rules to stay in session past 10 p.m.

The literacy test repeal is the most significant, coming 113 years after it was put into the state constitution by the Democratic-controlled legislature in 1899 and approved by voters a year later. As the constitution reads now, “every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.”

The Voting Rights Act approved by Congress in 1964 outlawed poll tests, but a voter referendum in 1970 to repeal the language failed.

House lawmakers approved the bill 114-0 to put it on the May 2014 ballot. It needs a final vote Tuesday before going to the Senate for consideration.

Later, as the session continued deep into the evening, the House gave a preliminary nod to a bill requiring a study about lessening the requirements for minor parties and candidates to get on the ballot.

The original legislation, with Republican and Democratic sponsors, called for reducing the number of registered voter signatures for a party to get on the ballot from about 90,000 to 11,000. The House passed a similar bill two years ago but the Senate didn’t consider it.

“Lowering the threshold for ballot access will help facilitate a free market of ideas in our elections,” said Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican. “I am optimistic that through the study process, we can get an even better bill.”

A third bipartisan elections bill hit an unexpected delay Monday night. It would require more frequent reporting from outside groups to spend money in state elections but some members were concerned about the increased transparency.

“People want to know where is this (money) coming from and who is doing it,” said Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh Democrat and bill sponsor. “This does a lot to move us forward in that area.”

Under current law, independent expenditure groups that attempt to influence an election file on the same schedule as candidates. But in some cases, the election spending isn’t reported until just before the vote, or even months after the election.

“That leaves large gaps when you don’t get information,” said Bob Hall, the executive director at Democracy N.C., which advocates for more campaign finance transparency.

House lawmakers want to give these outside advocacy groups more scrutiny because unlike candidates they are free to accept unlimited donations and corporate and union contributions under the Citizens United ruling.

The legislation – House Bill 918 – would require the initial filing for outside groups within 48 hours of spending its first $1,000 and additional reports within two days for every $5,000 spent or received. It also requires disclosures of the group’s donors, which concerned a few Republican lawmakers. “What this is creating is just more reporting,” said Rep. Mark Brody, a Monroe Republican.

The concerns delayed a vote on the bill until Tuesday.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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