Historically, people who cannot read or write have been discriminated against in American voting booths. Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, literacy tests were enacted as a means of disqualifying immigrants and the poor, who had less education, from voting. In the south, they were used to prevent black people from registering to vote.
According to ProPublica, in 2022, about 48 million people in the United States have difficulty reading, or about one-fifth of the adult population. An analysis of voter turnout found that in countries with lower literacy rates, voter turnout was also lower.
“The way the system is set up disenfranchises people,” voting rights advocate Olivia Coley-Pearson told ProPublica. Coley-Pearson is a city commissioner in Douglas, the county seat of Coffee County, Georgia. “It’s on purpose, I believe, because they want to retain that power and control.”
Recent laws passed in the south have made it harder for people to help those who have difficulty reading in the voting booth. In 2021, Georgia passed a law that limits who can return or touch a completed ballot. Florida made it harder for volunteers to ask voters if they needed help, and Texas passed a law prohibiting voter aides from answering questions or paraphrasing complicated language on the ballot.
Fortunately, parts of the Texas law have been overturned.
No one knows firsthand how hard it is for people with reading disabilities to vote in the south more than Coley-Pearson. She’s been indicted twice in Coffee County for trying to help people vote. “We are a rural community, there are racial issues, education issues, employment issues,” she told ProPublica.
“Most people who struggle with reading, writing and understanding won’t vote. If you have low turnout, that’s part of the reason,” she told ProPublica.
In 2012, the chairman of the Coffee County Board of Elections filed a lawsuit against Coley-Pearson and three other residents, alleging they assisted voters who were not legally eligible for assistance.
“If someone asks me for help, I feel obligated to try to help if I can,” she testified at a hearing in 2016. “Sometimes things are done to maybe trying to discourage, or whatever, other people from voting, and I don’t think that’s fair.”
The local district attorney’s office charged her with two felonies for signing a form that gave a false reason a voter needed help and for improperly assisting a voter. According to BuzzFeed News, there were no allegations that Coley-Pearson told anyone who to vote for or pressed a button on the voting machine for those she was helping.
“It’s supposed to instill fear in those who would dare to defend themselves,” said Nefertara Clark, Coley-Pearson’s attorney, according to BuzzFeed News.
After six years of felony charges looming over her, in 2018 the trial ended with a hung jury. She was retried and the new jury acquitted her of all charges. “Besides losing my son, the most horrible thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Coley-Pearson told 11 Alive News.
In October 2020, while helping a person with low literacy to vote in the presidential election, she was banned from returning to the polls for allegedly touching a voting machine. Coley-Pearson said she never touched the machine.
County Elections Supervisor Misty Martin called police on Coley-Pearson and they issued a trespassing warning banning him from the ballot box indefinitely. Later that morning, when she returned with another constituent, she was arrested and charged with trespassing.
A state judge dropped the charge earlier this year if Coley-Pearson agreed to follow election law. “There was no evidence of a crime here,” Coley-Pearson told ProPublica. “It’s like you’re fighting a losing battle.”
Although Coley-Pearson was victorious in court, her supporters tell her they are now afraid to vote because of her difficulties. Unfortunately, these are the people who most need their voices heard. “I say, ‘That’s exactly why you have to vote so we can stop stuff like this,'” she told ProPublica.