For nearly 10 hours on Georgia’s primary day, Olivia Coley-Pearson tracked down every potential voter she could find, working two cellphones as she paced the parking lot outside the polls, repeating the same message: “You need to tell all your cousins, your brothers, your sisters, your aunts, your uncles — everybody you know — to come on down here to vote.”
She wanted to ensure that Coffee County residents could read at basic levels. In the late afternoon, she rode behind the pink-colored SUV’s steering wheel for her final push of today, heading down a long stretch where buildings gave way and pine forests became fields. She turned into the Kinwood Estates mobile park and stopped at an unfamiliar dirt driveway, just as Shondriana (30) was running down the steps of a caravan.
“I can’t find my ID and Mama, she’s still at work,” Jones said.
Coley-Pearson has helped the family vote for years — she’s known them since she and Jones’ mother, Sabrina Fillmore, were young. Coley-Pearson, now 60, is a Douglas city commissioner. This is the majority-Black county seat. Fillmore, 54, is a chicken cutter at the local poultry plant. Fillmore and Fillmore can’t read beyond the first grade, but they are avid voters, believing that their votes can affect everything from electricity costs to how police treat them.
Coley-Pearson encouraged Jones to find a utility bill to prove her identity to the election office. Jones was returning from a 10-hour shift exhausted after Fillmore. Coley-Pearson, with the women in her car, began the drive, anxiety rising in her mind.
Coley-Pearson understood that the federal law granted the women the right of someone to help them vote. For all of the recent uproar over voting rights, little attention has been paid to one of the most sustained and brazen suppression campaigns in America: the effort to block help at the voting booth for people who struggle to read — a group that amounts to about 48 million Americans, or more than a fifth of the adult population. ProPublicaWe analyzed the voter turnout for 3,000 counties and found that those who had lower literacy rates had lower turnout.
“How the system is set up, it disenfranchises people,” said Coley-Pearson, who blames Southern political leaders for throwing up hurdles. “It’s by design, I believe, because they want to maintain that power and that control.”
Conservative politicians have long used harsh tactics against voters who can’t read — poor, often Black and Latino Americans who have been failed by the U.S. education system and who conservatives feared would vote for liberal candidates. Some states require voters who need help to vote. sign an affidavit explaining why they need assistance; some have prevented voters who couldn’t read from bringing sample ballotsTo the polls and limited the number of voters that a volunteer could helpRead a ballot. Federal courts have repeatedly ruled that such restrictions are illegal and unconstitutional. Inevitably, states just create more.
Over the last two decades, the myth of electoral fraud, which was supercharged by Trump’s 2020 loss, has fueled a flurry of new restrictions. Although they don’t all target voters who struggle with reading, they make it difficult for voters with low literacy skills and to cast ballots.
Georgia passed a law last year that limited who can drink. return or even touch a completed absentee ballot. Florida expanded the radius surrounding election locations in which volunteers are prohibitedAsking people for help is a good idea. Texas passed a law prohibiting voters’ assistants from answering questionsA federal judge may paraphrase or paraphrase difficult language on the ballot. struck down several sections of the lawIn June. But the court left other provisions in place, including ones that increase penalties for helping voters who don’t qualify and require people who assist voters to fill out more paperwork. Texas did not appeal the decision.
Take into account that recent elections were decided by a very small percentage of the electorate to show the impact of voter suppression.
Trump still won the popular vote despite losing it. secured the presidency2016: With just under 80,000 votes, won Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
President Joe Biden prevailed in 2020By winning Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin by just over 40.000 votes each.
Coley-Pearson recognizes how important this moment is for Georgia, which is not a stranger to close elections. Republican governor. Republican governor. But to Coley-Pearson, helping people vote isn’t only about politics or even just about their rights as individuals. It’s about the future of democracy in a time when the actions of a few seem to be marginalizing the views of the majority.
As a child in the 1970s, she’d watched as her mother, Gladys Coley — who stood just above 5 feet and had only an eighth grade education — rose to the helm of the local NAACP and challenged the discriminatory school system and police department. Although her mother begged her to not return to Atlanta from college, Coley-Pearson was determined to fight for the people in Coffee County. As she headed to the polls on primary day this past May, though, she couldn’t subdue her fear that by helping Jones and Fillmore, she was putting a target on her own back.
Over the course of several years, she’d become tangled in an investigation of supposed voter fraud, which took aim at her attempts to assist voters who requested help. She had pleaded her case to television cameras and at a hearing before the state’s highest election official. She ended up in jail.
“Intimidation is real,” Coley-Pearson said. “If we don’t continue to vote, they’re going to have us right back where it used to be.”
Coley-Pearson was a child of the Southern states, during which time she was forced to marry convoluted literacy testsBlack voters should not be allowed to vote. Local voting officials were often present in those days. made exceptions for white people who couldn’t read. 1965 saw Congress pass The Voting Rights Bill, which prohibits racial discrimination in the polls. That didn’t stop white conservatives, especially in the South, from continuing to discriminate against voters with low literacy skills, who, due to centuries of oppression, were disproportionately Black.
Conservatives argued that removing barriers for voters who couldn’t read would allow the federal government to overrule states’ decisions on how to run local elections and would hand more votes to liberal candidates. They claimed that voters with low reading skills would be able to vote. easily swayedfraud by anyone who assists them.
“Today the bureaucrats are issuing certificates to vote to people who cannot read the ballot nor even the instructions on a ballot or on a voting machine,” segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace declared in late 1965. “The left wing liberals need as many illiterates as they can get to vote in order to keep them in power.”
By 1981, voters of color, including those with low literacy levels, still faced “white resistance and hostility,” according to a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report. “For many minority voters, the kind of assistance that they receive at the polls determines whether they will vote,” the report stated. “If minority voters who do not speak English or who are illiterate receive inadequate assistance, they may become too frustrated and discouraged to vote or they may mark their ballots in such a way that they will not be counted.”
In 1982, Congress amended The Voting Rights Act to confirm that voters who have a need for help can vote. due to an “inability to read”They could bring someone other than their union representative or employer to help them vote. A string of subsequent lawsuits proves that this federal action did not eliminate discrimination.
In 2001, the federal justice division claimed that white poll managers in Charleston County (South Carolina) were liable for the deaths of 57 people. intimidating Black votersThose who asked for assistance. According to testimony given in the case, the poll workers launched a barrage of questions at these voters, such as, “Can’t you read and write? And didn’t you just sign in? And you know how to spell your name, why can’t you just vote by yourself? And do you really need voter assistance?”
A federal judge found that there was “significant evidence of intimidation and harassment,” but said evidence of the mistreatment was too “anecdotal” to take direct action.
In 2012, the chairman of Coffee County’s board of elections filed a complaint against Coley-Pearson and three other residents, alleging that they’d assisted voters who didn’t legally qualify for help. Georgia law does not allow voters to receive assistance unless they are legally eligible. disabled or cannot read English. The secretary of state’s office, then under Kemp’s leadership, initiated an investigation.
Alvin Williams, a 52 year-old line cook, answered his phone the next summer to find a state investigator on other end. The man wanted to know more about the 2012 election. “It looks like you were assisted by Olivia Pearson,” said state investigator Glenn Archie, in a recording obtained by ProPublica. (Archie didn’t respond to a request of comment. “It’s not marked why she assisted you and I was wondering why you needed assistance.”
The tone of the man’s voice made Williams nervous. “Because I can’t read. I’m illiterate,” Williams told Archie. He’d dropped out of school at 16 to work full time catching chickens and selling them to the local poultry plant, a job he’d skipped classes for since he was 11 to help support his family.
“I’m sure she read the candidates to you,” Archie said. “Did you get to pick the people you wanted to vote for?”
“Yes, sir,” Williams said. “I can’t read. That’s why she was helping me.”
“That’s no problem,” the investigator assured him. “She can assist you if you have problems reading.”
Williams was humiliated by the call, and was afraid that his vote could be used against Coley-Pearson or him. “I don’t fool with the law,” he said in a recent interview. “And I don’t do nothing for them to fool with me.”
Others told investigators that they had received and requested help, even though they were able to read. The investigation revealed that Coley–Pearson and other volunteers failed to verify whether voters are eligible for assistance. They also incorrectly filled out forms explaining why voters needed it. It was also discovered that election workers did not include all required information on forms and submitted them without verifying their accuracy.
At a 2016 hearing chaired by Kemp, Coley-Pearson maintained that she hadn’t broken any laws. In response to a poll worker’s claim that she’d touched the voting machine, Coley-Pearson said she’d merely accompanied voters who had requested her assistance and stood by to answer questions about the process or read names on the ballot. She stated that she followed the instructions of poll workers and signed forms as instructed.
“If someone asks me for help, I felt an obligation to try to assist if I could,” she testified at the hearing, stressing that she never told anyone who to vote for. Coley-Pearson suspected there was a deeper significance to the investigation and told the board, “Sometimes things are done to try to maybe dis-encourage, or whatever, other people from voting, and I don’t feel like that is fair.”
The state election board chose not to recommend her case for criminal prosecution, but a local district attorney’s office prosecuted her anywayThe national headlines in the United States were made by the story about, BuzzFeed. She was charged with two felonies, improperly aiding a voter and signing a form that gave false reasons why a voter required assistance. The trial ended in a hung jury. One of the two Black jurors told a local reporterShe was the only one who remained; everyone else voted for Coley-Pearson to be guilty. After approximately 3.5 hours, she was again tried in a nearby County. 20 minutes of deliberationsThe new jury cleared her of all charges. The district attorney’s office did not respond to ProPublica’s emailed questions.
Three other volunteers signed plea agreements in which they admitted to falsifying information on forms indicating why a voter required assistance. They were also given probation, which would allow them to waive any fines. James Curtis Hicks, one of the volunteers, stated that he could have been sentenced to jail or a lot of fines if he lost his case. He didn’t want to take any risks. “Around here, to me, they target the leaders, the people that are standing up for the rights of the minority,” he said in a recent interview. “To shut me and Ms. Pearson down, it would stop a whole lot of people going to the polls.”
The 59-year old truck driver kept track of Coffee County voters for years to see if they needed any help reading the ballot. After the settlement, he stopped. “I didn’t want a focus on me to suppress anyone else,” he said. “I really felt intimidated.”
But the charges didn’t deter Coley-Pearson.
Jones had to obtain temporary identification before she could vote on May afternoon. Coley-Pearson and she escaped the torrential rain and made their way to the elections office before it closed. Coley-Pearson, who stood nearly 6 feet tall, towered over the woman behind a plexiglass wall.
“She needs a voter ID, sweetie,” Coley-Pearson said, leaning in. Jones was presented with an application by the woman.
“You need me to do it, baby?” Coley-Pearson asked softly.
Jones nodded, “Yes, ma’am.”
The woman at the counter stressed that Jones needed to do it herself.
“She has trouble reading and writing,” Coley-Pearson said.
After a nervous moment, the woman agreed to allow Coley-Pearson to fill out the form. She read the questions out loud and filled in Jones’ answers, pointing out which lines to sign and date.
Jones is the third generation of her family to be unable to read. Her grandmother did not learn how to read, and Fillmore, her mother, quit high school in her sophomore year after being disciplined for fighting. Fillmore, who was now an adult, briefly attended an education program to learn how to read. But she felt discouraged and quit.
Jones graduated from highschool in Coffee County, but she claims she reads at the exact same level as her mother. Jones recalls attending special education classes that included more field trips than writing assignments. She claims that teachers never diagnosed her as having a learning disability or provided one-on-one support. She also claimed that school administrators frequently suspended her for fighting. “They were trying to get rid of me.”
Coffee County has failed for many years to provide equal education opportunities for students of color. Federal officials sued the school board in 1969 for refusing to integrate black and white schools. Black students were still attending school even after the school system was integrated. receive fewer academic resourcesTheir white peers were subject to harsher punishments. The district recognized its shortcomings a decade ago. shortcomings in reading instructionand the need for literacy reform, which was more evident in Black students.
The county’s lower literacy rate is related to its high poverty rate, and since integration, the district has worked to increase opportunities for students of color, Coffee County School District Superintendent Morris Leis said in an email; he added that the district does not use discipline to “push out” children who have academic challenges, and it has reduced racial disparities in discipline after it initiated a new program in 2014. Jones had graduated by that point.
She wants to learn how to read and eventually work in a child care center. However, she is unable to do so without reliable transportation. She has not applied for a driver’s license; though she could take the written test orally like her mother did, she hasn’t been able to find someone who has time to help her study the examination booklet.
Her daily tasks are often too difficult for her. Although she has a smartphone, it is difficult to search the internet for information. She couldn’t read the notice warning her that her lights would be turned off after she fell behind several months on her electric bills. She is likely eligible for low-cost internet but cannot follow the instructions to access it. When she takes her son to the doctor’s office, she prints his first and last name on the forms but asks the staff for help with the rest. She was unable to read her most important documents, such as her birth certificate, so she gave them to her aunt. She can read and help her determine what she needs to apply for appointments and other applications.
Jones worries about keeping up her 4-year-old boy as he grows. Although she can read to him beginner books, she knows her knowledge will soon surpass it.
Jones describes the voting process as a literacy test. She cannot change her address and update her registration. While she may recognize some names on the list, she might not be able to identify all the words, especially the confusing constitutional amendments. She prefers voting by mail, which allows her more time to process her choices, but Georgia’s new election law is making that more difficult. The law has banned outside groups from mailing out absentee ballot applications that have the resident’s information already filled in, and it has limited who can submit the applications on voters’ behalf. The law does include exceptions for people helping “illiterate” voters, but experts say its limit on assistance could still discourage those voters from requesting help.
“Any law that limits assistance is going to have an impact on voters with limited literacy,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director of voting rights at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Whether or not that’s the intention of the lawmakers, that’s always a difficult thing to say. But I do think sometimes it may very well be the intention.”
It is impossible to determine exactly how literacy affects voter turnout. There are many factors that contribute to lower participation, some of which are closely linked with literacy like income and education level. To put the importance reading ability in perspective, ProPublicaWe compared the data on turnout for the three most recent national election to the average literacy level for over 3,000 countries. (Read more about the analysis and the data used. in our methodology.) Our analysis showed that low-literacy areas could have contributed up to 7 million votes to each of the three elections if they had turnout comparable to high-literacy ones.
People like Jones, who are trying to navigate the incomprehensible electoral process that is fraught with poor ballot design as well as rigid registration rules, are finding themselves all over the country. Some people choose not to vote. (Learn more about what some states are doing to prevent voting). make voting more accessible.) “We know in general that the more barriers we put in front of people, the lower the participation rate,” said Donald Moynihan, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “Even if someone with lower literacy has the same desire to vote as someone reading this article, they have to overcome more barriers.”
For example, in 2014, Ohio legislators required voters to fill out more complex versions of provisional and absentee ballot forms. They also limited the assistance they could receive from poll workers. Minor errors in the paperwork could lead to people’s votes not being counted. The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless sued to claim that the laws were invalid. disproportionately harmed poor, nonwhite and low-literacy votersWho would be more likely have their ballots rejected because of minor errors?
Evidence provided by data shows that thousands of formsFor simple problems like incomplete addresses or birthdays, they were tossed in 2014 and 2015. Poll workers refused one form because the street name “Cuthbert” was misspelled as “Cuthberth.” Several others were rejected because birth dates were listed as the current date, an indicator that voters may not have understood the instructions.
A federal judge was appointed in 2016. struck down the measuresThey disproportionately hurt Black voters, concluded the U.S. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to state rules requiring the complete completion of absentee voting forms posed an undue burden to voters. The panel however stated that the other measures were equally effective. minimally disruptiveAdded regulations that restricted the assistance voters could receive from poll workers, and the time voters had to correct absentee or provisional ballot errors.
“What the case demonstrates is the indifference of officials from one political party, and of unfortunately many federal judges, to voting rights and to the need to make voting not only secure, but relatively unburdensome,” said Subodh Chandra, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
A similar law in Georgia suspended voter registration applications when the information on the form didn’t exactly match a driver’s license or social security record. (If voters didn’t correct the information within 26 months, Georgia could cancel their registrations.) His office suspended applications from 53,000 voters when he ran against Stacey Abrams as governor in 2018. most of them BlackThese discrepancies led to the loss of the election. Kemp won the election by approximately 55,000 votes.
Georgia was ordered to be reorganized by a federal judge ease the restrictive program, calling it a “severe burden” on some voters. Politicians, academics, and advocates all have accused Kemp of voter suppressionNot only can registration applications be suspended for minor discrepancies but also for purging tens of thousands of infrequent voters from the rolls — a more aggressive effort than is made in other states.
Kemp press secretary Katie Bryd disputed the allegations and noted that Kemp had implemented automatic voter registration through the state’s department of motor vehicles in 2016, which added hundreds of thousands of eligible voters to the rolls. “Politically driven, irresponsible accusations of voter suppression alleged at Governor Kemp have been repeatedly found void of basic facts and validity,” Byrd said in an email.
Voters who have flagged minor discrepancies in registration paperwork cannot be removed from the rolls. However, they must show a photo ID before they can vote.
Coley-Pearson was parked at the polling station when her thoughts turned to a similar day not too long ago, when she was handcuffed in the back seat of a police cruiser.
In October 2020 — more than two years after she was cleared of the felony charges — she was standing in a voting booth helping a young woman with low literacy skills read a ballot, as is allowed by law, when the county’s election supervisor, Misty Martin, confronted her. Martin shouted at Coley Pearson to stop touching the machines and said she was prohibited from returning to the polls. Coley-Pearson said she wasn’t touching any machines. “We’re done,” she told the young woman after she finished voting. “Let’s go.”
Martin, who has also used the last names Hampton, Hayes, called police to report Coley-Pearson’s disruptive behavior. The department was informed. issued a trespass warningBarring her indefinitely from the polls. Later that morning, Coley Pearson returned to drop off another voter. She was later arrested in the lot and charged criminal trespassing. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation will be investigating. election interference claims in Coffee County, including an incident in which Martin allowed several computer experts connected with Trump’s efforts to challenge the 2020 results into her offices, where they may have had access to election systemsMartin resigned under pressure from her county position last year. She did not respond. ProPublica’s questions related to either incident.
Coley-Pearson faced the charge for nearly two decades. However, a judge in state court agreed to drop it if she signed a consent agreement agreeing to observe election law. “There was no evidence of any crime here,” Coley-Pearson said. “It feels like you’re fighting a losing battle.”
Her daughters can see how her life has changed over the years. AiyEsha said that she would sometimes wake up at four o’clock in the morning to feed her newborn. She would then find her mother on Facebook, looking through the disparaging comments. Fearing that stress might eventually kill her, her daughters have long pushed for her to retire as a city commissioner. She’s starting to come around, and she plans to leave her post next year.
Now peering into her back seat, Coley-Pearson worried her presence could interfere with Jones and Fillmore’s ability to vote. “I did not want any type of confrontation, I did not want any kind of accusations, I just didn’t want any hassle,” she said.
She informed them that she would not be going with them and asked two of her closest friends to help her instead. “When you get through, you all come down there to the tent,” she said, motioning to where her volunteers were sitting out of reach of the rain.
Coley-Pearson watched as the women entered the building. She waited and fretted, leaning on her mobile scooter at the parking lot’s edge with a group volunteer canvassers. She reminded her friends about the rules, but she also knew that sometimes following them was not enough. “They might try to look for anything they could use against them,” she said.
Jones and her mother emerged beaming after nearly an hour.
Coley-Pearson’s nerves settled, at least for the moment.