We Can and Should Remove the Literacy Test from the State Constitution

  • The literacy test should be removed from the North Carolina State Constitution
  • Removing the literacy test may be difficult
  • Those favoring literacy test repeal must act strategically to ensure its passage

The North Carolina State Constitution includes a literacy test provision that was specifically used to prevent black people from registering to vote. The General Assembly should give voters the opportunity to repeal it. Due to the seemingly innocuous nature of the provision, however, legislators must act strategically or risk that vote failing, just like a previous attempt to remove it failed.

North Carolina Should Repeal the Literacy Test

Article VI, Section 4 of the North Carolina constitution states, “Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.” It was added in 1899 to prevent blacks from voting in future elections.

That section may seem innocuous at first glance. The United States Supreme Court ruled in Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections (1959) that North Carolina’s literacy test “does not on its face violate the Fifteenth Amendment” since it applied to all races. A grandfather clause that allowed illiterate whites to vote had been removed earlier.

The Court noted that the “issue of discrimination in the actual operation of the ballot laws of North Carolina ha[d] not been framed in the issues presented for the state court litigation,” however. That left the door open for them to hear a lawsuit on how the literacy test was used.

And how was the literacy test used?

The literacy tests required a voter to interpret a section of the Constitution. Whites administered the literacy test, and when blacks tried to register to vote, they often chose passages that even legal scholars had difficulty interpreting. Whites registering to vote were given far easier questions.

Fortunately, Section 4(e)(2) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) functionally banned literacy tests.

However, the literacy test requirement is still in the North Carolina constitution. It should be removed. Removing it would be a strong, symbolic break with our state’s racist past and would prevent it from coming back into force in the unlikely event that Section 4 of the VRA is repealed or struck down in a lawsuit.

Repealing the Literacy Test Is Easier Said than Done

You could be forgiven for wondering why North Carolina has not repealed the literacy test yet.

It has tried, but it failed.

Amending the state constitution requires a three-fifths vote of both chambers of the General Assembly followed by a majority vote of the people (Article XIII, Section 4). The General Assembly approved seven constitutional changes as part of an overhaul of the document. Voters approved six of those amendments in 1970, rejecting only the literacy test repeal by a vote of 44 percent in favor of repeal to 56 percent opposed.

Since 1970, legislators have attempted to repeal the literacy test several times, but none of the bills to do so have passed the General Assembly. At least part of the reason for that is some lawmakers’ fear that another attempt to remove it would also fail.

Those fears are not misplaced. A poll taken in April found that 50 percent of registered North Carolina voters favored repealing the literacy test, with 39 percent opposed and 11 percent undecided. That is an uncomfortably close margin.

At least part of the problem is that the language of the literacy test section of the state constitution appears innocuous. Voters who do not know its history may read a section stating that voters “shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language” and believe that is not an unreasonable standard. Remember that the Supreme Court ruled in Lassiter that the literacy test did not, on its face, violate the US Constitution.

It would take a united effort of Democratic and Republican leaders to ensure passage of a repeal. That may be too much to ask in the heat of a general election campaign, however. As I noted in a public comment to the House Judiciary Committee last year, there is a danger if we “succumb to the temptation to use the literacy test as a political bludgeon against our opponents. Each time we do so, we run the risk of driving down support for repeal.”

Legislators Must Act Strategically to Ensure Literacy Test Removal

So, repealing the literacy test is morally right but might be challenging to achieve. Failure is possible and something that legislative leaders rightfully worry about:

“There’s a worry about what might happen with that” if it were defeated again, said [House Speaker Tim] Moore, R-Cleveland, adding that he has no idea how voters might respond to another ballot question on the issue. “I would hope that amendment would pass overwhelmingly. It’s certainly something I would support.”

There are two things the General Assembly can do to increase the chances of repealing the literacy test.

First, they must carefully consider the language used in the amendment. Legislators should not have the power to editorialize within the text of constitutional amendments; the language within the text should remain neutral and leave the campaign language to those campaigning on the amendment.

Fortunately, legislators struck the right balance between providing helpful context while not editorializing in 2023’s House Bill 44:


Constitutional amendment to remove the literacy test requirement for voting from the North Carolina Constitution. The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits implementation of this requirement.

Without making an argument within the text of the ballot, that language lets voters know that the literacy test is not currently enforced because it violates federal civil rights law. Any future repeal proposal should have that or a similar ballot text.

Second, legislators should put the amendment on the 2026 primary ballot. This would reduce the risk of it becoming the “political bludgeon” I warned legislators about last year since Democrats and Republicans will not be running against each other simultaneously with the amendment vote. Legislators can approve the amendment early in the 2025 session but should start planning for its passage this year.

Putting such an amendment on the 2026 primary ballot would not be a new idea. North Carolinians have voted on several amendments to our 1971 constitution during primaries, most recently on the Defense of Marriage amendment in 2012.

North Carolina should repeal the literacy test from the North Carolina constitution, and if legislators act strategically, we can.