On Nov. 4 at 11 p.m., amid a sea of screaming, crying students celebrating the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States, Evan Pulvers ’10.5 was also thinking of a second, lesser-known electoral step toward racial equality.
That night, voters in her home state of Oregon passed Measure 54, an amendment that struck a long unenforced literacy test requirement for voting in school board elections from the state constitution – an amendment Pulvers herself drafted and advocated.
The amendment reversed outdated language in Section 6, Article VIII of the Oregon State Constitution, which stated that in order to vote for school board members, one must be able to read and write in English.
Though Oregon outlawed literacy tests as a voter qualification in the early 1970s and Section 6′s antiquated provisions have not been observed for decades, the changes to literacy requirements were not extended to school board elections due to governmental oversight.
In 2006, Pulvers and her father, a lawyer, were scanning the Oregon State Constitution and noticed the provisions, which they felt were unconstitutional. At the time, Pulvers was a member of the Grant High School constitution team, and they showed the passage to her teammates.
They had two options: sue the state to get the laws declared unenforceable or strike them from the constitution permanently through a ballot initiative.
“We all sat down and talked about it,” Pulvers recalled. “We’ve got all this knowledge, but it doesn’t really mean anything unless we’re pursuing a more just society.” The team decided to work to get the laws permanently removed from the state constitution.
They wrote to Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, who agreed to introduce the changes in the state legislature. Pulvers then drafted the bill and sent it to the Secretary of State’s office for revisions. She and other constitution team members testified in front of the legislature – Pulvers by phone because she was in the midst of shopping period at Brown.
“I thought it made a lot of sense,” said Oregon State Senator Suzanne Bonamici, a family friend of Pulvers’ who voted for the measure on Oregon’s House floor when she was a representative. “If there’s something that’s in the state constitution that is unenforceable, that has been held unconstitutional, then it shouldn’t remain in there.”
Neither Bonamici nor former Oregon Deputy Secretary of State Paddy McGuire was surprised to find the outdated language still in the state constitution.
“We’ve ended up with all sorts of weird anomalous stuff in the Oregon Constitution,” McGuire said. “For the most part we don’t get around very often to change it.” He pointed out as another example that to this day one must be 21 to run for the state legislature, but an 18-year-old can be appointed secretary of state.
McGuire said Measure 54 was met with almost unanimous approval in the Legislature but that his office had to work to promote the bill and make it a high enough priority that it kept moving forward. In 2007, Measure 54 passed in the Oregon Senate and House with only one dissenting vote.
Because all constitutional amendments must be voted on by the public, the measure was put on the ballot this November, one of 153 ballot measures nationwide. On Nov. 4, it passed with 73 percent of the votes.
“This is cool and this is symbolic but this isn’t going to change people’s day-to-day (lives),” Pulvers said. While she felt honored to have been involved in the amendment’s creation, she said she hopes to push for reforms that directly impact citizens’ quality of life.
On Nov. 4, Pulvers watched the election returns in the auditorium of Mississippi’s Tougaloo College. She is completing a semester exchange at the tiny historically black college and is currently the only white student there, she said. When the last polls closed on election night and students overturned chairs and swung their Barack Obama shirts over their heads in celebration, Pulvers received a text message from a friend at Brown congratulating her on the passage of Measure 54.
“It was kind of a special election,” Pulvers said. “To get rid of literacy tests and vote in the first black president, it’s something big.”
Bonamici agreed that the amendment’s passage was significant. “I think it makes our constitution more meaningful,” she said. “If somebody’s reading the Oregon State Constitution and they run across these provisions that are pretty clearly unconstitutional … they might wonder, ‘Why is this here?’ and ‘Is this really part of our constitution?’”
Nonetheless, Pulvers said there is still much work to be done. She hopes the passage of Measure 54 will provide an opportunity to reexamine Oregon’s race relations. “The plight of African Americans in this country is the same,” she said. “It’s still harder to get a job. Your odds of graduating from high school are still less. All those things haven’t changed.