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In November, we released a video featuring several Harvard students as they struggled to pass the 1964 Louisiana Literacy Test. While the project has received overwhelmingly positive feedback, in the comments sections of many sites across the web, several debates have been sparked in response to the video. Some commenters have questioned the comparison between literacy tests and voter identification laws and others have even questioned the purpose of this project.
With this op-ed, we hope to explain exactly why this project is so important and why the comparison between literacy tests and voter ID laws is absolutely valid.
Five decades ago, states in the American South gave literacy tests to any voter who could not “prove a fifth grade education.” In reality, the only people who ever saw this test were blacks and, to a lesser extent, working class whites. In order to pass the 1964 Louisiana Literacy Test, voters needed to answer all 30 questions correctly in 10 minutes. Just one question wrong was grounds for disenfranchisement.
While it may be disturbing to read about barriers to voting such as poll taxes and literacy tests in history books, it is an entirely different experience to stand in the shoes of a black voter who had to take this test in 1964. We asked a group of Harvard students to take the test under the conditions stipulated in the directions of the original test. Thirty questions. Ten minutes. Not a single question wrong. If anyone could pass a basic literacy test, it would be Harvard students, right?
As brilliant as the students who took this test are, none of them passed it. None of them passed because no one can pass. The 1964 Louisiana Literacy Test, like the other literacy tests given to black and poor white voters at the time, did not have a legitimate answer key. Most of the test’s questions seem purposely ambiguous. No matter what was written down, the registrar official would simply say the person’s interpretation of the question was wrong. These literacy tests were devious and instituted to disenfranchise people who had the wrong skin tone or belonged to the wrong social class.
Literacy tests and other mechanisms used to disenfranchise citizens were outlawed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but the primary purpose of this project is to bring attention to the fact that the sacred right to vote remains threatened. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, empowering Southern states to change their election laws without federal oversight. Eight states have established strict voter ID laws that disproportionately prevent people of color and the poor from voting. Just last month, the Supreme Court upheld Texas’ voter ID law, which potentially disenfranchised as many as 600,000 people in the 2014 midterm elections alone.
What motivates voter ID laws today is no different from what motivated past malicious barriers to voting. Those who support voter ID laws are claiming to be sincerely guarding against voter fraud in the same way that those who supported literacy tests claimed to be issuing a legitimate test of one’s literacy. Loyola University Law School Professor Justin Levitt’s comprehensive study of over 1 billion ballots cast in general, primary, special, and municipal elections across the nation from 2000 to 2014, could only find 31 possible incidents of voter fraud.
Another study by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School has found that the costs related to obtaining an ID to vote can range from $75 to $125, a sum that disproportionately burdens minority and working class voters. This is a cost that, when adjusted for inflation, is significantly higher than the poll tax that was explicitly established to prevent blacks and working class whites from voting. To put it simply, voter fraud is an imaginary problem being used to justify discrimination by another name.
We created this project because we want everyone to understand that the right to vote has never been guaranteed and should never be taken for granted. Lawmakers have been devising clever schemes to disenfranchise American citizens since the earliest days of this country’s founding. The voter ID law is only the most recent ploy in a long legacy of voter disenfranchisement efforts in this country’s history.
We must remain vigilant in the face of dishonest laws that are disenfranchising our fellow citizens. The midterm election has passed, but our message remains the same. The right to vote is sacred and we all have a responsibility to protect it.
Dennis O. Ojogho ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Winthrop House. Follow Dennis on Twitter @dennisojogho. Carl L. Miller is a Fellow at Harvard Law School and a Resident Tutor in Winthrop House. Follow Carl on Twitter @Vote4CarlMiller.
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