Low literacy voters struggle to cast ballots in the face of restrictive voting laws

As Americans begin to cast ballots in the midterms, voters who struggle to read will confront an election system that relies on literacy. Experts estimate that roughly one in five Americans, including those with disabilities and those who have not learned English, struggle to read. Laura Barrón-López reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As Americans began to cast ballots in the midterms, voters who struggle to read will confront an election system that relies on literacy. Experts estimate that roughly one in five Americans, including those with disabilities and who have not learned English struggle to read in this country.

    Laura Barrón-López has more.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Literacy tests targeting Black voters have long been part of America's history. Though no longer illegal new voting restrictions implemented since 2020 are creating new barriers to the ballot box for voters with low literacy.

    Aliyya Swaby is a reporter with ProPublica South unit, whose article entitled "The Fight Against an Age-Old Effort to Block Americans From Voting" dives into these new laws.

    And she joins me now.

    Aliyya, thanks for joining us.

  • Aliyya Swaby, ProPublica:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Requiring literacy tests to vote are illegal now. But are these new laws limiting access to the ballot effectively modern-day literacy tests?

  • Aliyya Swaby:

    Yes, that's exactly right.

    So these new laws are limiting the assistance that voters who struggle to read can receive at the ballot box. And that assistance is really crucial for them to be able to vote and also for them to be able to vote correctly and for the candidate that they actually want to vote for.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    I want to break down some of those laws further. Florida passed one that extended — quote — "no solicitation zones" outside voting precincts to 150 feet. Texas now requires more paperwork for those assisting voters and increases penalties for helping voters who don't meet certain qualifications.

    Georgia now restricts who can send and return absentee ballots, cutting absentee voting time windows. And Arizona imposed shorter time window to fix a ballot if it's missing a signature from five days after the Election Day to Election Day.

    So, can you explain for us how these laws are creating obstacles for people who struggle to read?

  • Aliyya Swaby:

    Experts have told us basically that any laws that limit assistance are laws that could impact or deter a voter who struggles to read.

    The more barriers that you put in front of people with reading struggles, the more likely it is that they will avoid voting altogether or perhaps vote for the wrong person. Some of these laws, in limiting assistance, also make it harder for someone to get help actually reading the ballot.

    And if you think about it, for someone who doesn't struggle to read, it's an easy process. But everything in the process of voting basically involves reading.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    I also wanted to ask you, how are low-literacy voters preparing for this year's election?

  • Aliyya Swaby:

    I think there are very few resources that are available that actually specifically focus on voters with reading struggles.

    There's one. In particular, we interviewed a woman who helps to run it named Faye Combs, who is based in California. And she struggled to read until her 40s. And now she works for an organization called Key to Community that helps people with reading struggles understand the voting process better.

    And so, if you live in a place where those resources exist, you can prepare and move forward with the resources you need. But I think, otherwise, it's a challenge. I think a lot of people might be staying at home and not voting at all.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    There was a subject of your article, Olivia Coley-Pearson, who is from Coffee County, Georgia. Georgia is a swing state.

    She was charged twice for assisting people who have difficulty reading, assisting them when they voted. Can you tell me what happened to her case?

  • Aliyya Swaby:

    A lot of the people that she helps are afraid to vote. They see what happened to her. And they see it as, well, if you are a city commissioner who has been criminally charged for using this legal right to help people to vote, what is going to happen to me, as someone who is not in a position of power, someone who struggles to read? Will I be criminally charged as well? Will I be getting in trouble for exercising this legal right?

    And Olivia Coley-Pearson has been trying to convince them that you still should be exercising this right. But, as you can understand, it's a challenge in South Georgia and it's a challenge across the country.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Your analysis shows that — quote — "If low-literacy counties had turnout similar to high-literacy counties, they could have added up to about seven million votes to the national total."

  • Aliyya Swaby:

    It's a really poignant piece of information to think about when we think about the impact of voter suppression on voter turnout.

    And the fact that that many votes could potentially be recovered means that there's a significant change that could potentially be made by allowing more people to be able to exercise their right to vote.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    We will be tracking these new election laws closely and the impact of them.

    Aliyya Swaby, thank you so much for your time.

  • Aliyya Swaby:

    Thank you.

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