The Ballot or the Book: Literacy Tests as a Tool of Voter Disenfranchisement

Friday, Feb 05, 2016

As we merge at the intersection of Black History Month and the 2016 presidential election, it is important to look back at how literacy tests were used to keep voters from marginalized groups (who were mostly the descendants of slaves forcibly transported from African countries, but also poor whites and members of immigrant groups) from participating in the democratic process–a process that directly impacted their lives.  Literacy and education are and will continue to be a civil rights issue, a social justice issue, and an important step in creating a more equitable United States for all people.

Literacy tests–only one of the tools in the post Civil War voting disenfranchisement toolbox–were a simple list of questions that were given to potential voters to block their access to the ballot box. The questions on the test were either worded in a confusing manner or used to assess knowledge that members from these groups simply did not have. Tests were delivered by a single assessor who had the ability pass or fail a voter based on a whether he thought they deserved to vote. These tasks were often impossible: there are reports that literacy tests required voters to read and write complex government documents, and that the marginalized voters often received the more difficult tasks, while the privileged voters received simpler ones. Some tests were even more difficult. Above is an example of a literacy test from Jim Crow Louisiana. Pay close attention to the directions, and keep in mind that there are 17 more questions as part of the test.

Other methods to keep these disenfranchised voters from participating in the democratic process were poll taxeselectoral fraud, and outright violence. Many of these obstacles were scaffolded so that even if a member of a disadvantaged group managed to achieve success in one area, they would be faced with a more difficult obstacle at another point in the process. Literacy tests were effective in the case of former slaves when considering that before the Civil War, it was illegal to teach slaves to read.

These tests were in direct violation of the Fifteenth Amendment, but TheVoting Rights Act of 1965 protects voters from marginalized groups against literacy tests and other forms of voter suppression. But literacy is still a foundational justice issue. Literacy is a fundamental tool of empowerment for all people, and those who do not possess this skill are often members of communities or groups that have historically suffered from structural oppression. Many individuals from these same groups still lack the ability to read, write, and understand English today, and this impacts their ability to live their lives to the fullest. The fight against low literacy is ongoing, and we need a multitude of help to combat this issue.

If you want to try your hand at more voter literacy tests, you can click here. If you’re interested in joining the fight against low literacy, consider volunteering with or donating to Literacy Mid-South.