The Issue of Illiterate Voters

Today’s USA Today notes that 1 in 20 Americans have such poor English skills that they cannot read simple documents, and an additional 30 million Americans have very low literacy skills. This report–the National Assessment of Adult Literacy–contains an array of interesting data, including the fact that many individuals who are elderly and also individuals with disabilities have low literacy.

In elections, there have been laws over the years to inhibit people with low literacy from voting. In New York, for instance, the state had literacy requirements until the passing of the Voting Rights Act. Given that you cannot discriminate against voters on the basis of literacy, this study raises interesting questions, such as:

  • should ballots contain party symbols in addition to party labels?
  • should we use candidate photos on ballots?
  • will the move to electronic voting in many jurisdictions increase turnout among low literacy voters, given that these machines can facilitate voting among those who cannot read the ballot?
  • should ballots be shorter and more simple?