Decades have passed since any North Carolina voters have been forced to take a literacy test to vote, but the requirement is still in the state constitution today.
“Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language,” Article VI, Section 4 says.
The N.C. House voted unanimously Tuesday night to start the process to repeal that line, which was often used to prevent African-American residents from registering to vote.
House Bill 148 would let voters decide the fate of the provision in a November 2018 referendum.
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“I don’t think I need to explain why we want to repeal it,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Michael Speciale of New Bern. “It’s a stain on North Carolina, and I just think it’s something that needs to come out of the constitution.”
Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat who was active in the civil rights movement, accidentally voted against the bill initially. House Speaker Tim Moore asked him if he’d intended to support the measure.
“You better believe it,” he replied as he corrected the vote.
The literacy requirement was added to the state constitution in 1899, with a separate provision exempting anyone whose family could vote prior to the end of the Civil War – ensuring that illiterate white people could still vote. When black voters came armed with knowledge of the constitution, they were often asked obscure legal questions intended to disqualify them.
The effort to repeal the provision now goes to the Senate.