Literacy as a requirement for voting
The term literacy test or literacy requirement refers to the government practice of testing the literacy of potential citizens at both the federal level and state level. It is a test that determines the qualification of a voter based on his/her his ability to read and write or ability to read and understand any section of the State or Federal Constitution.
Today, most citizens register to vote without regard to race or color by signing their name and address on something like a postcard, but this was not always so.
Prior to passage of the federal Voting Rights Act in 1965, Southern (and some Western) states maintained elaborate voter registration procedures whose primary purpose was to deny the vote to non-whites. This process was often referred to as a literacy test. But in fact, it was much more than just a reading test. It was an entire complex system devoted to denying African-Americans (and in some regions, Latinos and Native Americans) the right to vote.
The federal government first employed literacy tests as part of the immigration process in 1917. Southern state legislatures employed literacy tests as part of the voter registration process as early as the late nineteenth century.
As used by the states, a spawn of "Jim Crow Laws", the literacy test, gained infamy as a means for denying suffrage to African Americans. Adopted by a number of southern states, the literacy test was applied in a patently unfair manner, as it was used to disfranchise many literate southern blacks while allowing many illiterate southern whites to vote. The literacy test, combined with other discriminatory requirements, effectively disfranchised the vast majority of African Americans in the South from the 1890s until the 1960s. Southern states abandoned the literacy test only when forced to by federal legislation in the 1960s.
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided that literacy tests used as a qualification for voting in federal elections be administered wholly in writing and only to persons who had not completed six years of formal education. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspended the use of literacy tests in all states or political subdivisions in which less than 50 percent of the voting age residents were registered as of November 1, 1964, or had voted in the 1964 presidential election. In a series of cases, the Supreme Court upheld the legislation and restricted the use of literacy tests for non-English-speaking citizens. Since the passage of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, black registration in the South has increased dramatically.
- Department of Justice, "Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act"
- PBS, "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow"
- Slate.com, "Take the Impossible Literacy Test Louisiana Gave Black Voters in the 1960s"
- Buzzfeed, "Could You Pass The Literacy Test Given To Black Voters In The 1960s?"
- U.S. Legal.com, "Literacy Test Law," accessed March 28, 2014
- CRMVET.ord, "Voting Rights: Are You "Qualified" to Vote? Take a "Literacy Test" to Find Out," accessed March 28, 2014
- U.S. Immigration Legislation Online, "1917 Immigration act," accessed March 28, 2014
- Smithsonian, "White Only: Jim Crow in America," accessed March 28, 2014
- Department of Justice, "Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act," accessed March 28, 2014