Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Literacy Test in NC: Lessons from 1970

By Christopher Cooper

Last week Representatives Alexander (D), Saine (R), Brown (D), and Stevens (R) introduced a bipartisan bill in the North Carolina House to remove the literacy test from the NC State Constitution. This bill is just the latest attempt to send this racist vestige of the Jim Crow South packing; we've been down this road before.

I wrote about the literacy test in 2021 and 2022, but now that there is a new bill--and one that seems to be more likely to pass--I thought it would be a good time to reassess the issue but hopefully without tilling the same soil. Below, I briefly review the origins of the literacy test (spoiler alert: it's racist), briefly analyze the last statewide vote on the issue in 1970 and discuss what all of this means for the likelihood of repeal this year. 

The Origins of the Literacy Test 

At the height of the Jim Crow Era, the North Carolina General Assembly, like many southern state legislatures, passed a suffrage amendment to make it more difficult for African Americans to vote. The portion of the amendment pertaining to the literacy test stated that anyone "attempting to register to vote must be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language." Of course, anyone who could vote prior to 1867 was grandfathered in and did not have to take the literacy test. In other words, it was ok to be illiterate, as long as you were white. The literacy test was approved by a majority of North Carolina voters in 1900.

The racist roots of the law were not implicit, but were rather fully on display. See this clip from the Fayetteville Observer in 1899 when the suffrage amendment was proposed. Pretty straightforward stuff.

Still not convinced that the literacy test is racist? Check out this clip from later in the same article (below). And, if you're wary of us academic types and think I'm taking anything out of context, here's a link to the full page so you can see for yourself. [1]

After being used to suppress the black vote for decades, the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 stripped the literacy Test of its enforcement power. With the stroke of a pen, LBJ turned the literacy test from a an active tool of oppression into an unsightly and garish symbol of racism, albeit one without the force of law. 

The 1970 Vote

Although the idea of repealing the literacy test surfaces from time to time, only once has a bill made it through through the General Assembly and to the people for a vote (because the literacy test is enshrined in the Constitution, it requires not just legislative approval, but a vote of the people for repeal). 

In 1970, North Carolina voters were presented with seven potential constitutional amendments, including the adoption of a new state Constitution, elimination of the literacy test, and 5 other items (it's a fascinating story about why these other amendments weren't folded into the proposed Constitution, but this blog is already getting a bit too long, so I'll save that for another day). 

As you can see from the table below, all of the proposals passed, except for abolishing the literacy test. 

Abolishing the literacy test didn't just fail; it failed spectacularly. Despite predictions of success, a majority of voters in just 22 out of North Carolina's 100 counties chose to eliminate the literacy test. The list of counties that voted for and against the amendment might surprise you. A majority of voters in Wake, Mecklenburg and Durham counties voted to keep the literacy test in the state Constitution. Some unlikely counties like Madison, Graham and Jackson, however, voted to eliminate it. 

The map below shows each county in NC with their vote on the amendment represented from green (most support for repeal) to white (least support for repeal). 

The full list of counties with vote totals and other information is available in this spreadsheet. But if you're just after the list of counties that supported repeal of the literacy test, I'll save you a click:  

County % for Repeal County % for Repeal
Madison 71 Cherokee 57
Yancey 68 Mitchell 56
Ashe 67 Wilkes 54
Graham 66 Orange 54
Watauga 64 Carteret 52
Polk 62 Chowan 51
Clay 60 Buncombe 51
Swain 60 Surry 51
Avery 60 Haywood 51
Northampton 60 Transylvania 51
Jackson 60 Guilford 50

To learn a little more about the patterns of support, I ran a model to see if Democratic party support, the racial composition of the county, or population size were associated with support for repeal of the literacy test. In brief, I found that population size has nothing to do with the vote patterns on the literacy test. Racial makeup of the county and Democratic Party support, however, were important predictors. [2]

As you can see below, on average, counties that gave more support for George McGovern (the Democratic nominee for President in 1972) were more likely to support eliminating the literacy test. Even while controlling for other factors, on average a 1 percentage point rise in McGovern support led to about a .6 percentage point rise in county-level support for repeal.

Here's where it gets interesting. You might think that places with larger black populations would be more likely to support elimination of the literacy test. The truth is actually the opposite.

As you can see in the graph below, there are exceptions, but as a general (and statistically significant) rule, counties with larger black populations were less likely to support elimination of the literacy test. Controlling for other factors, every one percentage point increase in the percent black in a county resulted in about .3% percentage points less support for elimination of the literacy test.

This does not mean that black people were voting for the literacy test to remain. Instead, it is more likely that the white vote in the counties with high black populations came out overwhelmingly to support the literacy test. 

These results are broadly supportive of racial threat theory, the idea that whites are more likely to respond negatively and are more likely to support racist policies and candidates when they are surrounded with diverse populations. This also is consistent with other work on race in North Carolina, particularly David Cunningham's research on Klan chapters.

Could This Time Be Different?

In sum, the vote for repeal last time was disappointing and perhaps a bit counterintuitive. But this time might be different.

First, there appears to be strong bipartisan support for repeal this time--and in an era where bipartisanship on all but the state marsupial is virtually unheard of. This isn't just true at the legislative level, either, but bipartisan support for repeal exists among the network of party activists and think tanks.

Second, while the effects of racial threat are still evident in many parts of American politics, the last half-century has seen a massive rise in black voter registration and turnout. In 1970, white turnout overwhelmed black turnout, even in counties with relatively large black populations. Today that turnout gap is much smaller. As a result, we might expect black turnout to counteract any lingering effects of racial threat among the white population in counties like Wake, Mecklenburg, and Durham.

Finally, if this bill passes, it will come to a vote during a Presidential election year--the highest of high turnout environment, and one that will more likely mirror the will of the people in North Carolina. 

The lore has been that NC legislators have long supported getting rid of the literacy test, but were afraid that we might have a repeat of the 1970 vote. Hopefully the changes described above and the increasing awareness of the racist roots of the literacy test will render those fears unrealized. 



1. And if you're still not convinced, I encourage you to read Fragile Democracy (actually, I encourage you to read Fragile Democracy either way). 

2. To measure Democratic party support, I tallied county level vote for George McGovern (the Democratic Party candidate for President in 1972) v. the vote for Richard Nixon (the Duke graduate and Republican Party candidate for President in the same year). 


Christopher Cooper is the Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University. He tweets at @chriscooperwcu.