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For the People: An Historical Perspective on Voting Rights

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

by Phil Hatcher

HR 1, the For the People Act, is currently pending in Congress and is designed to provide national standards for voting. We need to put the debate that HR 1 has provoked into a historical context.

In 1903 New Hampshire amended its constitution to require that voters be able “to read the English language and to write”. And in 1905 a law was passed to put in place a literacy test to be applied when a person registered to vote. Slips of paper were placed in a box, with each slip containing five lines of the state constitution. The person applying to vote would reach into the box to select a slip, and then needed to read all five lines, copy by hand one of the lines, and sign their name.

I am not sure what the motivation was for the literacy test. Perhaps there was a concern about the growth in the number of non-English speaking immigrants at the time. But it seems clear that the law was intended to suppress votes that were perceived as low-quality.

This literacy test stayed on the books until 1976. What was the motivation to finally remove it?

The Voting Rights Act

Well, the federal government had passed the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, which aimed to eliminate the voting apartheid that existed in many Southern states at the time. Southerners and many state rights advocates were upset about what they saw as federal overreach. However, both senators from New Hampshire voted for the bill, one Republican and one Democrat.

New Hampshire became collateral damage in the war for full citizenship for African Americans. Because the state had a literacy test on the books, similar to what was used to disenfranchise citizens in the South, and because ten towns in New Hampshire had voting participation rates below 50% in the 1968 election, the ten towns were labeled as “covered jurisdictions,” meaning they needed to have any changes in their voting laws and procedures cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice. This caused New Hampshire to have to file extensive paperwork at times, such as after performing redistricting.

In 2012, when the state was applying to be freed of this burden, Secretary of State William Gardener was quoted in the Concord Monitor as saying that New Hampshire’s situation made a mockery of the original goals for the Civil Rights Act because he said the state had not had lynch mobs and cross burnings. I guess Secretary Gardener failed to recognize that the Ku Klux Klan had been active in the state, particularly in the early decades of the twentieth century, directing its ire not just at African Americans but also at Catholic immigrants, who very well might have been the target of the 1903 amendment.

I do not know why New Hampshire decided to leave its literacy test on the books even after the passing of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, but I hope that we would all agree that finally removing the literacy test was a good thing. And that the Civil Rights Act was a very good thing for our nation.

The National Voter Registration Act

More recently, in 1993, the federal government passed the National Voter Registration Act, better known as the motor-voter bill. The New Hampshire senators, both Republicans, voted against this bill. The bill caused New Hampshire in 1994 to add election-day registration. Again, this caused consternation in many quarters of the state. But, as is shown in data available from the Secretary of State’s website, New Hampshire’s ranking in voter turnout has since risen to be consistently in the top 5 in the nation, and this has occurred without any evidence of widespread fraud in the intervening 25+ years. I hope again that we would all agree that this is a very good thing.

So, while the details of HR 1 surely should be debated, a blanket refusal to allow the federal government to call for improvements to our state voting practices has no historical basis.

And such a refusal is particularly dangerous right now when our democracy is under the strongest attack seen since the Civil War. President Trump is lying to his followers about the 2020 election results. A large number of U.S. representatives and senators voted against accepting fully legally certified electoral votes in January. Numerous states are rushing through laws designed to suppress the vote and hand more control of election processes and verification to partisans in state legislatures. This will not end well unless people from both political parties start to stand up and say “Enough is enough. We will defend the right and the freedom to vote.”


Author’s note: I would like to thank Mary Searles, a librarian in the State Law Library, for her assistance in researching the history of the state’s literacy test

About the author:

Phil Hatcher retired from UNH in 2019 after 33 years teaching computer science. He and his wife, Peggy Kieschnick, have lived in Dover since 1986. They have two children and one grandchild, all living in Brooklyn, New York. This makes them wonder: why can’t we keep our young people in New Hampshire?



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