I think there should be a literacy test and a
poll tax for people to vote.
– Ann Coulter
The ability of the citizenry to choose whom they wish to govern America and meaningfully impact both the structure of our government and the substantive policies implemented forms the bedrock of our Republic. Indeed, the right to vote is one of the most cherished rights protected by the Constitution; it is a fundamental right that many have fought for, marched for, and died for throughout our history. But yet, it is something that far too many Americans take for granted. When asked whether they would consider themselves “extremely interested” in the 2012 election, only 79 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats agreed. And throughout this country, legislatures have sought to disenfranchise millions of eligible voters with Voter ID laws, even though these laws are solutions in search of a problem.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly made clear that the right to vote is a “fundamental political right.” Dunn v. Blumstein, 405 U.S. 330, 336 (1972). But throughout American history, there have been numerous efforts to deprive citizens the right to vote. For example, between 1890 and 1908, every state in the Deep South adopted a new constitution that employed at least one, and often several, techniques to disenfranchise individuals. These techniques involved both “direct” disenfranchisement – i.e., preventing people from voting or having their votes counted (e.g., force, restrictive and arbitrary registration practices, poll taxes, literacy tests) – and “indirect” disenfranchisement – i.e., diluting the impact of peoples votes (e.g., gerrymandering, ballot box stuffing).
After the invalidation of the White Primaries in Grovey v. Townsend, 295 U.S. 45 (1935), a method of discrimination in which non-white votes were prohibited from participating in elections, the primary method utilized by States to disenfranchise individuals involved the use of literacy tests.
In Louisiana, for example, a citizen was qualified to vote if he or she could read and write English, was of good character, and could provide a reasonable interpretation of a section of the Louisiana state constitution. White voters easily passed these requirements. As noted in United States v. State of Louisiana, 225 F.Supp. 353 (E.D. La. 1963), “[i]n one instance ‘FRDUM FOOF SPETGH’ was an acceptable response” from a white voter after he was instructed to interpret the section of the Louisiana constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech.
Non-white voters, however, were frequently prevented from voting even after providing satisfactory responses. In one instance, an African American was asked to interpret the section of the Louisiana constitution guaranteeing the right to peaceably assemble, but was rejected by a registrar after providing the following response: “That one may assemble or belong to any group, club, or organization he chooses as long as it is within the law.” In another instance the registrar rejected the following interpretation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures: “[Nobody] can just go into a person’s house and take their belongings without a warrant from the law, and it had to specify in this warrant what they were to search and seize.” Rather than representing an isolated event indicating “personal dereliction by one registrar,” the Eastern District of Louisiana concluded that “great number of these and other examples . . . show conclusively that the discriminatory acts . . . were part of a pervasive pattern and practice of disenfranchisement.”
Other states, such as Alabama, submitted non-white voters to lengthy exams. Consider, for example, the following reproduction of a typical Alabama literacy test. At the outset, it should be noted that most white voters were not required to take this exam because of “Grandfather Clauses,” which exempted those whose ancestors (at the time, this meant grandfathers) had the right to vote before the Civil War. Regardless of whether or not this may have been the case, see how many questions can you answer correctly.
———————-Alabama Literacy Test———————-
[Instructions: This test is premised on the idea that the U.S. Constitution is so important that you should know it perfectly well without having to consult any source and without requiring previous study time. Answer as many questions as you can correctly. But keep in mind what would have been at stake. You would be permitted to vote only if you passed. If you failed, the registrar would prevent you from casting a ballot.]
- Which of the following is a right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights? _ Public Education; _ Employment; _ Voting; _ Trial by Jury
- The federal census of population is taken each of five years. (True or False)
- If a person is indicted for a crime, name two rights which he has.
- A United States senator elected at the general election in November takes office the following year on what date?
- A president elected at the general election in November takes office the following year on what date?
- Which definition applies to the word “amendment”? _ Proposed change, as in a Constitution; _ Making of peace between nations at war; _ A part of the government
- A person appointed to the United States Supreme Court is appointed for a term of ___
- When the Constitution was approved by the original colonies, how many states had to ratify it in order for it to be in effect?
- Does enumeration affect the income tax levied on citizens in various states?
- Persons opposed to swearing in an oath may say, instead: “I solemnly __.”
- To serve as President of the United States a person must have attained _ 25, _ 35, _ 40, _ 45 years.
- What words are required by law to be on all coins and paper currency of the United States?
- The Supreme Court is the chief lawmaking body of the state. (True or False)
- If a law passed by a state is contrary to provisions of the United States Constitution, which law prevails?
- If a vacancy occurs in the United States Senate, the state must hold an election but, meanwhile, the place may be filled by a temporary appointment made by __.
- A United States senator is elected for a term of __ years.
- Appropriation of money for the armed services can be only for a period limited to __ years.
- The chief executive and the administrative officers make up the __ branch of government.
- Who passes laws dealing with piracy?
- The number of representatives which a state is entitled to have in the House of Representatives is based on __.
- The Constitution protects an individual against punishments which are __ and __.
- When a jury has heard and rendered a verdict in a case, and the judgment on the verdict has become final, the defendant cannot again be brought to trial for the same case. (True or False).
- Communism is the type of government in: _ the United States, _ Russia, _ England.
- Name two levels of government which can levy taxes.
- Cases tried before a court of law are of two types, civil and __.
- By a majority vote of the members of the Congress, the Congress can change provisions of the Constitution of the United States. (True or False).
- For security, each state has a right to form a __.
- The electoral vote for President is counted in the presence of two bodies. Name them.
- If no candidate for President receives a majority of the electoral vote, who decides who will become President?
- Of the original 13 states, the one with the largest representation in the first Congress was __.
- Of which branch of state government is the Speaker of the House a part? _ Executive; _ Legislative; _ Judicial
- Capital punishment is the giving of a death sentence. (True or False)
- In case the President is unable to perform the duties of his office, who assumes them?
- “Involuntary servitude” is permitted in the United States upon conviction of a crime. (True or False)
- If a state is a party to a case, the Constitution provides that original jurisdiction shall be in __.
- Congress passes laws regulating cases which are included in those over which the United States Supreme Court has __ jurisdiction.
- Which of the following is a right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights of the United States constitution? _ Public Housing; _ Voting; _ Education; _Trial by Jury
- The Legislatures of the states decide how presidential electors may be chosen. (True or False)
- If it were proposed to join Alabama and Mississippi to form one state, what groups would have to vote approval in order for this to be done?
- The Vice President presides over __.
- The Constitution limits the size of the District of Columbia to __.
- The only laws which can be passed to apply to an area in a federal arsenal are those passed by __ provided consent for the punishment of the land is given by the __.
- In which document or writing is the “Bill of Rights” found? __.
- Of which branch of government is a Supreme Court justice a part? _ Executive; _ Legislative _Judicial.
- If no person receives a majority of the electoral votes, the Vice President is chosen by the Senate. (True or False)
- Name two things which the states are forbidden to do by the U.S. Constitution.
- If election of the President becomes the duty of the U.S. House of Representatives and it fails to act, who becomes President and when?
- How many votes must a person receive in order to become President if the election is decided by the U.S. House of Representatives?
- How many states were required to approve the original Constitution in order for it to be in effect?
- Check the offenses which, if you are convicted of them, disqualify you for voting: _ Murder; _ Petty larceny; _ Issuing worthless checks; _ Manufacturing whiskey
- The Congres decides in what manner states elect presidential electors. (True or False)
- Name two of the purposes of the U.S. Constitution.
- Congress is composed of: __.
- Alllegislative powers granted in the U.S. Constitution may legally be used only by __.
- The population census is required to be made every __ years.
- Impeachments of U.S. officials are tried by __.
- If an effort to impeach the President of the U.S. is made, who presides at the trial?
- On the impeachment of the chief justice of the Supreme court of the U.S., who tries the case?
- Money is coined by order of: _ U.S. Congress; _ State Legislatures; _ The President’s Cabinet
- Persons elected to cast a state’s vote for U.S. President and Vice President are called presidential __.
- Name one power which is exclusively legislative and is mentioned in one of the parts of the U.S. constitution above.
- If a person flees from justice into another state, who has authority to ask for his return?
- Whose duty is it to keep Congress informed of the state of the union?
- If the two houses of Congress cannot agree on adjournment, who sets the time?
- When presidential electors meet to cast ballots for President, must all electors in a state vote for the same person for President or can they vote for different persons if they so choose?
- After the presidential electors have voted, to whom do they send the count of their votes?
- The power to declare war is vested in __.
- Any power and rights not given to the U.S. or prohibited to the states by the U.S. Constitution are specified as belonging to whom?
———————-End of Test———————-
Check your answers here. Before finding out whether or not you passed, however, reflect on the nature of the test. Note the similarities between some questions (e.g., Question 1 and Question 37), the degree of difficulty of others (e.g., Question 17), and the vagueness of yet still others (e.g., Question 52). In light of this, it is not unreasonable to expect even a well-informed voter to miss 10-15 questions (and maybe even more).
How many questions did you get correct? If you did not qualify for the exemption under the Grandfather Clause, you were permitted only seven (7) incorrect answers. If you missed more than seven questions, the voting registrars would prevent you from voting. In other words, you would be denied your “fundamental political right” to vote simply because you could not answer a series of purposefully vague and difficult questions correctly.
As should be clear, the intent and effect of literacy tests, like the Alabama literacy test reproduced above, was to disenfranchise poor and illiterate African American’s. The Grandfather Clauses prevented these tests from having the same effect on poor and illiterate whites. Despite the Supreme Court’s insistence that “the [Fifteenth] Amendment nullifies sophisticated as well as simple-minded modes of discrimination,” Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268, 275 (1939), the Court continued to uphold literacy tests as constitutional (see e.g., Lassiter v. Northampton Election Bd., 360 U.S. 45 (1959) (North Carolina)). It was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Congress abolished all literacy, understanding, and good character tests in the Deep South. And it was not until 1970 that this ban was extended nationwide.
As Representative John Lewis (D-GA) stated, “The right to vote is precious, almost sacred. People fought for it, bled for it, died for it. Honor their sacrifice.” The right to vote is indeed sacred, and it is something that we should never take for granted. On November 6, 2012, we all would do well to heed this message.