Literacy Tests Are Gone, But Voter Suppression Isn't: 'Shut Out,' Episode 1

The Voting Rights Act was one of the most powerful pieces of legislation in U.S. history. A new podcast from HuffPost explains why and how it's under attack.

“Shut Out” is a three-part podcast series produced by HuffPost. America doesn’t make it easy to vote. A citizen can be disenfranchised for a typo, a scrawled signature, or for a felony. Then there are the politicians who tout “voter fraud” when it’s a proven myth. Host Catherine Saint Louis and reporter Sam Levine examine why we should be worried about the weakening of our democracy with 2020 on the horizon.

Subscribe to the podcast here, or listen wherever you get your podcasts. (Episode 2, Episode 3).

It used to be that literacy tests and poll taxes kept black voters from the ballot box. It was deliberate disenfranchisement put in place to block African-Americans after they legally gained the right to vote.

But in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law one of the most powerful pieces of legislation in the history of the United States. The law, called the Voting Rights Act, equipped the federal government with a bazooka it could aim at racist barriers standing in the way of minority voters.

The Voting Rights Act not only wiped out many of those restrictions, but it was a profound acknowledgement that change could only happen if all Americans could choose who governed them.

In Episode 1 of “Shut Out” we take a 1960s literacy test, designed to keep black people from voting, and learn more about how America made it hard, and continues to make it hard, for black voters to get to the polls.

We examine the voting restrictions that made the Voting Rights Act necessary. And we explore the power of a certain part of the law that helped stop discrimination before it happened. That’s right: Officials who wanted to make voting changes first had to show they were not going to cause problems for minority voters.

Lastly, and perhaps most urgently, we look at how the Supreme Court recently gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, giving officials the green light to implement discriminatory voting laws.

Subscribe to “Shut Out” wherever you listen to podcasts. Read on for a transcript of the first episode.

Episode 1: You Flunked

Catherine Saint Louis: I’ve got to take a test today. It’s not just any test. The stakes are high. If I pass it, I get to vote. If I don’t pass, I don’t get to cast a ballot. Everything hinges whether or not I can answer questions to the satisfaction of one person.

And I’ll have think quickly. The whole test ― all 30 questions ― has to be done in 10 minutes.

Meet my registrar.

Carol Anderson: Come into my registrar’s office. What do you want? I said, What do you want?

Saint Louis: That’s actually Carol Anderson. She’s an Emory professor whose latest book is One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying our Democracy. She agreed to give me a 1960s literacy test from Louisiana. Right now, in 2018.

She did not go easy on me.

Anderson: What makes you think you have the right to register to vote?

Saint Louis: Um, I was told I could.

Anderson: You’re not sounding too literate with your, um, ha, hmmm, ha. Why are you here? Oh, you would love to register to vote. Well, let me give you the test to see if you got what it takes to be a voter in my state.

Saint Louis: So she gave me the instructions.

Anderson: Do what you are told to do in each statement. Nothing more. Nothing less. Be careful, as one wrong answer denotes failure of the test.

Question 1. Draw a line around the number or letter of this sentence.

Saint Louis: The number? So maybe the number 1? Alright I’m going to draw a line around that one. But what about that letter of the sentence? What on earth does that mean?

Anderson: In the space below, write the word “noise” backwards and place a dot over what would be its second letter, should it have been written forward.

Saint Louis: So the O would have been on the second letter, so I would place a dot over that ― so, E-S-I-O with that dot-N.

Anderson: And, remember, one wrong and you don’t get to register to vote.

Saint Louis: I’m trying.

Anderson: [Sighs.] Yes, you are trying. You are trying my patience! This really is a waste of my time, because you obviously are not literate. Spell backwards forwards.

Saint Louis: Spell backwards forwards? B-A-C-K-W-A-R-D?

Anderson: You flunked.

Saint Louis: So your judgment is final?

Anderson: Yes. That part you got right.

Saint Louis: I forgot backwards ends with an “s.” For that, my right to vote as a black person was taken away. It’s a random reason to get disenfranchised in the 1960s. But you’re fooling yourself if you think calculated roadblocks to voting are a thing of past.

That’s why we’re telling this story now. The past isn’t the past. People who want to register still have to jump through too many hoops. And voting can be difficult for some American citizens. Citizens, not people here illegally. Citizens.

From HuffPost, this is “Shut Out,” a podcast about the fight to vote in America. I’m your host, Catherine Saint Louis. This is Episode 1, “You Flunked.”

Recently, America went to the polls for the midterm elections. No one had to take a literacy test. Thankfully, we’ve made a world of progress since then. But have we? Really?

Sure, we have the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That was one of the biggest game changers for American democracy. But in the decades since the law has passed, our right to vote has still come under attack.

The ways people get blocked from voting today aren’t the flagrant acts we know from history books. They’re much more subtle. And officials often present voting restrictions as race-neutral and necessary. But when you start to look closer, it’s clear that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the intent of these restrictions isn’t subtle at all.

Can’t afford ID? Sorry, Ma’am, you can’t vote. If you sat out the last couple of elections? Nah, Sir, sorry, your name is no longer on the voter rolls. And don’t even get me started on the millions of former felons who still can’t cast a ballot in this country.

Over the next three episodes, and with an eye to the 2020 election, we’ll dig into the ways suppressing the vote is weakening our democracy and how it might even be creating a backlash. But for now, back to the 1960s, when the literacy test was an insurmountable hurdle for black folk.

Anderson: It is designed to frustrate. It is designed to strike fear. It is designed to demoralize. It is designed to paralyze. It is designed to be an obstacle to the ballot box.

Saint Louis: That’s why registrars used to have full discretion to ask impossible questions. In Mississippi, they liked to ask would-be black voters: How many bubbles in a bar of soap?

I don’t even know how to begin to answer that. I asked my 10-year-old, and he started nervously giggling. It makes no sense, he said. No matter. That was the test. Black folks could take it or leave it.

Different states had different literacy tests. In Alabama, voters had to read and interpret part of the state’s constitution. We want informed citizens. Fair enough. How hard could it be?

But the exam was hardly fair. A black applicant had to read a paragraph out loud, full of legalese, without a single misstep.

Anderson: We don’t need voters who stumble.

Saint Louis: Here I am reading Section 260 of Alabama’s Constitution. “The income arising from the sixteenth section trust fund, the surplus review fund, oh, sorry, revenue fund, revenue fund…”

Alabama’s literacy test was not easy at all. It was part interpreting constitutional law on the spot and part performance.

“And the funds enumerated…”

Black men had to read 187 words with no errors. White men got to read a different passage entirely. They read just eight words aloud and they were registered to vote.

“That no person shall be imprisoned for debt.” That’s it.

But even if everyone had been given the same paragraph to read, it wouldn’t have leveled the playing field. That’s because black people’s education had been systematically underfunded to the point that…

Anderson: In many many locations in the South, the school system for African-Americans did not include high schools. And by the time we’re in the 1940s, in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, over 50 percent of black adults had less than five years of formal Jim Crow education.

Saint Louis: And yet, to be able to vote, black folks had to interpret Alabama’s Constitution. I couldn’t make sense of it. I told professor Anderson as much and then confessed:

“I mean, I went to college and I have my master’s.”

Anderson: So, like, you know words.

Saint Louis: I guess that made her point that this test wasn’t about literacy. It was about finding a way to stop black voters. This was strategic. It was necessary because the 15th Amendment had already given black men and former slaves the right to vote. Long ago. Back in 1870.

Twenty years later, literacy tests had their heyday when Mississippi formulated a plan. It was about answering one question for the white delegates who gathered in Jackson for a convention that November.

Anderson: How do we ensure black people do not vote? But how do we do that given that there’s this thing called the 15th Amendment?

Saint Louis: Right, so they had kind of be sneaky about it.

Anderson: They had to be really sneaky. And so it was a way to say, “We don’t want black people to vote, but we can’t write a law that says we don’t want black people to vote.’ So how do we see to it that black people don’t vote and we can still remain constitutional.

Saint Louis: And the way they did that was an array of devices. One ― you guessed it ― was the literacy test. But that wasn’t the only one.

Anderson: Poll tax. White primary. Grandfather Clause. Election Day terrorism.

Saint Louis: Let’s talk about one of the most effective ways black people were kept from voting: poll taxes. Essentially, they’re a pay-to-play scheme. Sharecroppers couldn’t afford to pay, so they couldn’t participate. Plus, a poll tax had to be paid in cash, months before an election. And sharecroppers only had cash late in the season.

But let’s say a black person did have the money. It still wasn’t clear where they had to pay a poll tax or exactly when. And did I mention the tax was cumulative?

Anderson: So that at 21, you’re supposed to pay your poll tax, but it takes you, say, 20 years to figure out where to pay it and to have the cash to pay it. You owe 20 years of back poll taxes before you can be able to vote.

Saint Louis: Wow. That’s amazing.

Imagine if polling places tried taxing voters today. It sure would be an effective way to lower turnout. But intimidation kept people from the polls too. Having to pay to vote was one thing, but black folks, we used to live in fear of lynching.

By 1965, a critical mass of civil rights activists had grown tired of being disenfranchised.

A historic showdown in Selma on Edmund Pettus Bridge would usher in change, but not before more violence.

Charles Mauldin: When we got to the top of the bridge, we could see down and there was the state troopers sort of lined up across Highway 80. They had deputized locals who were very likely Ku Klux Klan or Ku Klux Klan types and had given them billy clubs. Many of the state troopers had masks on and at this point we knew it really wasn’t going to be a very pleasant day.

Saint Louis: That’s Charles.

Mauldin: Charles Mauldin, and I’m 70 years old.

Saint Louis: But he was just 17 on the day of the protest that would come to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” He had spent the better part of 1965 skipping class to go to civil rights marches. He was sick of being considered inferior.

Mauldin: One of the things that got me involved in the civil rights movement most directly was a sense of indignity as opposed to some type of organized concept like getting registered to vote.

Saint Louis: What kind of injustice did you deal with in Selma in the 1960s?

Mauldin: It was sort of like being in a big open-air prison with all types of restrictions. You couldn’t go to the library. You couldn’t drink out of quote “the white fountain.” You had to drink out of the colored fountain. You couldn’t go to a white hospital. And there were heavy penalties if you stepped out of line.

Saint Louis: That day, facing down police with billy clubs, Charles happened to be steps away from John Lewis.

Mauldin: We continued to march down the bridge and directly confronted the state troopers. One of the state troopers used his billy club to hit John Lewis across the head, basically knocking him out.

Saint Louis: Yes, that John Lewis, Georgia’s longtime congressman. Back then, he was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Mauldin: Like I said, I’ll never forget that sound, and it was a thumping type of sound. Wood on a skull, you know. Then they threw tear gas into the crowd, and I’m not sure if you’ve ever been in tear gas, but tear gas causes your eyes to water, causes your skin to burn, and also your lungs just sort of implode. At that point, the only thing you can do is just try to get away from it.

Ari Berman: ABC cut into its prime-time premiere of the film “Judgment at Nuremberg,” which was about Nazi Germany, and showed images of the brutality on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, of police wearing riot masks, wearing gas masks, beating civil rights demonstrators, trampling them on horseback, whipping them, firing tear gas into the crowd, and a lot of confused viewers thought they were seeing images of Nazi Germany, but it was actually Selma, Alabama.

Saint Louis: That’s Ari Berman.

Ari Berman: I am the author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.

Saint Louis: Truth was, black voters were intimidated every day. Not just at protests.

Berman: There was also a climate of a tremendous amount of fear. If you somehow ended up registering, and you were African-American, they would print your name in the newspaper and your address, so suddenly everyone knew where you lived.

Saint Louis: And fear worked. Only 2 percent of African-Americans in Selma were registered to vote. Then hundreds of peaceful protestors were attacked with billy clubs on March 7, 1965. After that, voters who had been sidelined ― people like Charles’ parents ― took action.

Mauldin: I think that they both felt like the least they could do is register to vote, since we had all put our lives on the line to get people registered.

Saint Louis: Before that, his parents had tried to register to vote, but they hadn’t pushed it, because they wanted to keep their jobs. She was a nurse and he distributed produce. And then Charles risked his life.

Mauldin: You know, your children will get you to do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do.

Saint Louis: Selma was a breaking point for their family and the nation.

Berman: LBJ knew enough was enough, and eight days after Bloody Sunday, he introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before a joint session of Congress. Basically the idea was this would knock out these kind of literacy tests and related restrictions overnight. On Aug. 5, 1965, there was a literacy test in Alabama, but on Aug. 7, 1965, the day after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, there was no more literacy test. I mean the legislation just wiped it out.

Saint Louis: And on Aug. 10, Ardies Mauldin rose early to go something she had never done before.

Saint Louis: What did your mother become famous for?

Mauldin: Well, you know, we never thought of her as famous. [Laughs.] But she happened to have been the first person to register to vote as result of the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. I found out because of a Jet Magazine article that was written in April, I think, 1969, where she was highlighted. When I discovered that, I looked into the commission records and found that my father’s certificate showed him being No. 2.

Saint Louis: It took a federal examiner just a few minutes to register Ardies Mauldin. No more having to beg to vote. No more being blocked. That’s because the other big thing the Voting Rights Act did was…

Berman: It sent federal officials to the South to register voters. They were going to force compliance with the law.

Saint Louis: Wait, what? Federal examiners were deployed to Alabama where the Ku Klux Klan ruled the roost?

Sam Levine: Who were they? Were they voting experts? Were they civil rights lawyers?

Saint Louis: That’s Sam Levine, HuffPost’s voting rights reporter. He wanted to know more, too, so he asked Ari Berman.

Berman: They were people from the federal civil service who were trained to do this. They were not voting rights experts. They were kind of like paper pushers in the government who suddenly found themselves in Selma, Alabama, having to register people to vote in the most segregationist places in the country. But I actually interviewed one of them and it was fascinating. He basically said, “We stayed in an Army base and we didn’t socialize with the locals,” because they were not well-received.

Saint Louis: But the federal examiners got the job done. On day one, they registered more than 1,100 black voters in nine Alabama counties, 107 in Selma.

Day two. More than 1,700 black voters registered.

By day 11, 20,000 black voters had been registered in those nine Alabama counties.

Anderson: Oh, it was a seismic change.

Saint Louis: That’s Carol Anderson.

The Voting Rights Act got noticeable results immediately. Black people lined up to register. Literacy tests were abolished.

But voter suppression didn’t end once the Voting Rights Act became law. States looked for new ways to frustrate black voters. In Mississippi, for example, lawmakers redrew districts to dilute the black vote.

So the Supreme Court quickly clarified that states couldn’t do this. And they focused on a section of the law that initially got very little attention. It’s called…

Different voices: Section 5.

Section 5.

Section 5.

Section 5.

Saint Louis: The Supreme Court made it clear that Section 5 was incredibly powerful. It forced states and counties with the worst history of discrimination to jump through extra hoops. They had to approve all ― all ― election changes before they went into effect with the federal government. Every single one had to be vetted by the attorney general or federal judges who either said yes [Noises, Woo-hoo!] or no [A harsh beep noise].

Berman: What this part of the voting law did was it prevented this suppression from ever occurring, because discriminatory voting changes were blocked in advance. [Harsh beep noise.]

Saint Louis: You get the point.

The more I thought about Section 5 and its ability to stamp out future discrimination, I started thinking about that 2002 Spielberg movie “Minority Report.” I know, I know, it’s not Tom Cruise’s finest work. But remember how he played a cop who went around stopping murder before it happened? That part was kind of incredible. He was part of a pre-crime unit.

Section 5 has a similar power. The power of pre-clearance.

Berman: That was so, so, so important, because in virtually every other aspect of life, discriminatory things happen and then you have to challenge them after the fact. But this knocked it out beforehand. So it stopped the crime before the crime ever was committed.

Saint Louis: For decades, Section 5 meant the federal government was keeping tabs on places with a history of discrimination. And keeping them in check. But all that changed in 2013.

Chief Justice John Roberts: I have the opinion of the court this morning in case 12-96, Shelby County v. Holder.

Saint Louis: In 2013, the Supreme Court neutralized the power of pre-clearance.

I’ll bet you’re wondering why. Chief Justice John Roberts argued that times had changed. The formula for deciding which states had to be closely watched was outdated. Alabama had a literacy test and a shockingly low number of black voters registered in the 1960s and 1970s.

But that was a long time ago. Should Alabama still have to have their election changes vetted decades later?

That didn’t sit right with Chief Justice Roberts.

In the end, the Supreme Court decided the formula they used to decide which states and counties need oversight ― that formula [in Section 4 of the act], it wasn’t constitutional. Without the formula, Section 5 would be nullified.

Not everyone agreed the law should be changed. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that Section 5 had been critical…

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: prevent a return to old ways. In 1995, for example, the state of Mississippi was stopped by Section 5 from bringing back its Jim Crow-era dual-voter registration system. In 2006, Texas was stopped from curtailing early voting in predominantly Latino district…

Berman: The analogy used by Ruth Bader Ginsburg was basically that, “You don’t throw away your umbrella just because it’s not raining one day.” And what she was trying to say was just because voter suppression isn’t happening in a certain place or a certain county right now, doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen in the future ― that it was going to rain again.

Saint Louis: Once Section 5 was gutted, within 24 hours, it started pouring.

Berman: You had laws that were actually blocked as discriminatory, like Texas’ voter-ID law where you can vote with a handgun permit but not a student ID ― that law was put into effect hours after the decision.

Saint Louis: A month after Shelby County v. Holder was decided, North Carolina passed a sweeping rewrite of its election laws.

Berman: They required strict ID; they cut early voting; they eliminated Election-Day registration during their early-voting period.

Saint Louis: Black voters used early voting more than others. Take it away and it’s gonna impact their turnout. Black voters disproportionately also didn’t have the IDs that the new law in North Carolina required.

A federal appeals court would later strike down this North Carolina law, because it said it targeted black people with “almost surgical precision.”

Berman: I would argue that if there are laws that are targeting black voters in such an extreme way, then probably those provisions of the Voting Rights Act that were ruled unconstitutional needed to still be in effect.

Saint Louis: A lot of work goes into suppressing the black vote, not just in North Carolina, but in other states too.

Anderson: Legislators have gone through the data to figure out which kinds of government-issued ID African-Americans have and which kinds they don’t have. They have then written into the law to make the Holy Grail the kinds that African-Americans disproportionately do not have. By crafting the IDs that count and the ones that don’t count, you then have politicians being able to shape the electorate, to be able to choose who their voters are instead of having their voters choose them.

Saint Louis: Let that sink in. Democracy is supposed put power in the hands of voters, the people. People in power aren’t supposed to be able to choose who puts them there.

The Voting Rights Act is often called a “crown jewel” of the civil rights movement. The law dramatically expanded access to the ballot box for African-Americans. And the law created safeguards to ensure that the places known for blocking black voters didn’t do it again.

But in 2013, once the Supreme Court essentially killed Section 5, it freed up states to do what they wanted. Sure, they might get sued, but a new election change could be in effect for an election or two.

No more stopping discrimination before it happened. So if a state wanted to shorten early voting, they could. If a state wanted to close a polling place right before an election, they could. No more federal pre-clearance. No more [Harsh beep] standing in their way.

You’ve been listening to “Shut Out,” a podcast about the fight to vote in America. I’m your host, Catherine Saint Louis.

It’s 2018. You might be surprised to learn there’s still one group of people that states can legally block from voting. Millions of felons can’t vote. Next time on “Shut Out,” we’ll talk to the felons who have long been kept from the ballot box. And to one woman from Texas who paid dearly for not knowing she couldn’t vote while out on supervised release. Crystal Mason is now back in prison. And we’ve got the only phone interview with her since she reported for her sentence.

This story was reported by Sam Levine, HuffPost’s voting rights reporter, and me. We are edited by Samantha Storey.

I produced this episode with studio assistance from Nick Offenberg and Sara Patterson.

Special thanks to Paul Josephson, Jo Confino, Bayla Metzger, Morgan Givens. A huge thumbs-up to Marc Janks who managed this production with grace.

“Shut Out” is a production of HuffPost.

Show Notes

Several books helped inform this episode, especially Carol Anderson’s One Person, No Vote and Ari Berman’s Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.

Excerpts from the Supreme Court’s public sessions were provided by Oyez, an archive devoted to making these sessions accessible to everyone.

There are plenty of documents news articles we studied too. Here are a few:

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