Article Title

Literacy Tests, the Fourteenth Amendment, and District of Columbia Voting: The Original Intent

Publication Title

Washington University Law Quarterly


On August 6, 1965 the President signed into the law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 4(e), purporting to secure fourteenth amendment rights, prohibits the states from requiring literacy tests in the English language as a voter qualification if the applicant is literate in another language learned in an American flag school. This provision was designed principally to extend the right to vote to Spanish-speaking natives of Puerto Rico who had moved to New York City although they were unable to comply with New York State's English language literacy test.

Inasmuch as this statute is the first congressional attempt to interfere with English language literacy tests used by the states for voting qualifications, and since only six years before, the United States Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of such tests, it is obvious that a substantial question is presented as to the constitutionality of the congressional provision. In fact, in Morgan v. Katzenbach a statutory three judge court, in a two to one decision, held section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional. This Article attempts to show that the legislative history of the fourteenth amendment unequivocally supports the decision of the lower federal court that the fourteenth amendment did not bestow upon Congress the power to ban literacy tests prescribed by state law.