Recently, a group of Harvard students were asked to take the 1964 Louisiana Literacy Test — one of the extreme efforts to stop African Americans from voting that eventually led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act. Since racism is no longer a thing in America, according to the Supreme Court, and the Voting Rights Act has been effectively gutted, it might be time for a lesson from the past.
The test required those who took it to correctly answer 30 questions in 10 minutes — something even a group of Harvard students could not do today. The students were recorded struggling with the vaguely-worded questions. Under Louisiana law at the time these students would each require a 100% score on the test to be able to vote.
Carl Miller, a resident tutor at Harvard who administered the test, says that the purpose of the students’ participation was to teach them how unjust the electoral process was toward African Americans.
“Exactly 50 years ago, states in the American South issued this exact test to any voter who could not ‘prove a fifth grade education,’” said Miller. “Unsurprisingly, the only people who ever saw this test were blacks and, to a lesser extent, poor whites trying to vote in the South.”
Miller said he hoped to “see if some of the ‘brightest young minds in the world” could pass a test that was intended to “prove” someone had at least a fifth-grade education, according to the Daily Mail.
“Louisiana’s literacy test was designed to be failed. Just like all the other literacy tests issued in the South at the time, this test was not about testing literacy at all. It was a legitimate sounding, but devious measure that the State of Louisiana used to disenfranchise people that had the wrong skin tone or belonged to the wrong social class,” Miller said. “And just like that, countless black and poor white voters in the South were disenfranchised.”
Because the test was designed to allow officials to conveniently interpret any and all answers as wrong, not a single student passed.
Since the Voting Rights Act was gutted, we have seen a wave of voter ID legislation across red states. While these laws are purportedly intended to prevent fraud, the effects are the same as the literacy tests in the south. For the midterm elections, the state of Texas passed some of the most restrictive identification legislation in the country’s history. While this was initially blocked because a federal judge deemed it to be a poll tax, the law was later reinstated.
The result? According to MSNBC, no one knows how many voters the law disenfranchised. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the law had a very negative impact.
For starters, turnout dropped to 33.6%, down from 37.5% in 2010 — a decline of 271,000 voters. That happened despite a high-profile governor’s race, and an increase of 700,000 in the number of registered voters.
And even though turnout was lower, the number of provisional ballots doubled. That might be attributable to voters who lacked acceptable ID, since the law allows such voters to cast a provisional ballot. (In order to make those ballots count, the voter needs to return soon with valid ID, something few would be likely to do.)
MSNBC does note, however, that “turnout declined everywhere. The national drop — from 40.9% in 2010 to 36.4% this year — wasn’t much different from Texas’ decline.”
No matter what, some people were definitely affected. At least some instances of voters — including those who have voted successfully their entire lives — being turned away at the polls have been widely publicized. One notable example was a 93-year-old veteran whose driver’s license had expired, and who had not gotten a veteran’s identification card. He was able to vote without any issues until the midterm election.
“What’s clear now, though, is that the law deprived some voters — very plausibly a number in the tens of thousands, if not more — of their most basic democratic right,” MSNBC said. “That’s a reason for enormous concern, no matter how many people, or election results, were affected.”