North Carolina’s most powerful senator expressed interest on Tuesday in deleting a voter literacy test provision from the state constitution — a relic from the Jim Crow era that while unenforceable has never been removed.
Senate leader Phil Berger told reporters he believes the language is “something that ought to be out of our constitution.” Bills directing a statewide referendum on removing the provision have advanced in the House over the past decade. But support from the Rockingham County Republican could provide new momentum for the idea. Three-fifths of the state House and Senate members would have to agree to offer the ballot question to voters.
The section says anyone attempting to register to vote must “be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.”
The requirement was added to the North Carolina Constitution in 1900 and used to keep many Black citizens from casting ballots. The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 made literacy tests unlawful in southern states, and later prohibited them nationally.
Still, state voters in 1970 defeated a constitutional amendment to remove the provision. The possibility of a repeat outcome is something Berger said may have caused reticence about the idea. But he said Tuesday he would vote to schedule the referendum and cast a ballot as a voter to do away with it.
No such proposed referendum had been filed in the early days of this year’s General Assembly session. Berger said he wouldn’t shepherd any such bill but has talked to colleagues about a repeal question.