Law School Case Brief
Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections - 360 U.S. 45, 79 S. Ct. 985, 3 L. Ed. 2d 1072, 1959 U.S. LEXIS 852
There is wide scope for exercise of a state's jurisdiction. Residence requirements, age, previous criminal record are obvious examples indicating factors which a state may take into consideration in determining the qualifications of voters. The ability to read and write likewise has some relation to standards designed to promote intelligent use of the ballot. Literacy and illiteracy are neutral on race, creed, color, and sex, as reports around the world show. Literacy and intelligence are obviously not synonymous. Illiterate people may be intelligent voters. Yet in our society where newspapers, periodicals, books, and other printed matter canvass and debate campaign issues, a state might conclude that only those who are literate should exercise the franchise.
A North Carolina statute, applicable to members of all races, requires that a prospective voter be able to read and write any section of the constitution in North Carolina in the English language. Plaintiff-appellant, who was African American, having been denied registration as a voter because of her refusal to submit to the literacy test required by the statute, appealed to the County Board of Elections. At a de novo hearing, she again refused the literacy test and was again denied registration. She appealed to the Superior Court, Northampton County, North Carolina, which sustained the Board as against the claim that the requirement of the literacy test violated the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Seventeenth Amendments to the Federal Constitution. Plaintiff sought review of the decision from the Supreme Court of North Carolina, which upheld the N.C. Const. art. VI, § 4 requirement that all persons pass a literacy test before being able to register to vote. She then filed suit against appellee county board of elections for violating U.S. Const. amends. XIV, XV and XVII. N.C. Const. art VI, § 4 prescribed a literacy test as a prerequisite to voter registration. Where the original wording of N.C. Const. art VI, § 4 included a grandfather clause which permitted certain persons to vote without meeting the literacy requirements the Court agreed with the lower court's finding that a later statutory amendment voided the grandfather clause.
Was a North Carolina 1957 statute requiring a prospective voter to be able to read and write constitutionally valid?
While noting that the right to vote was established and guaranteed by the Federal Constitution, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the states had broad powers to establish non-discriminatory standards for the exercise of that right. Because the Court found that the ability to read and write had some relation to standards designed to promote intelligent voting, the Court held that the literacy requirements were constitutional on their face where the literacy requirements were neutral on race, creed, color and sex. The Court affirmed the judgment of the lower court affirming the application of the literacy requirements for voter registration.
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