For Helping Voters Who Can’t Read, She’s Been Criminally Charged — Twice. That Hasn’t Stopped Her.
by Mauricio Rodríguez Pons, Aliyya Swaby and Annie Waldman
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
Series: The Right to Read
Examining the Toll of America’s Literacy Crisis
Before 1965, many Southern states forced voters to prove they could read before casting a ballot, a requirement primarily designed to keep Black people from voting. The Voting Rights Act put an end to those polling site exams. But a ProPublica investigation found that the efforts to block people who have difficulty reading from casting a ballot continue, especially in the South. In fact, today’s election system remains a modern-day literacy test.
It didn’t get that way by accident. For decades, conservative politicians have passedlaws to make it harder for these voters to cast a ballot and discourage anyone trying to help them.
Olivia Coley-Pearson knows this better than most. She has been criminally charged twice in the past decade for her attempts to help people navigate their ballots; she has never been found guilty of any wrongdoing. Now 60, she serves as a city commissioner in Douglas, the majority-Black seat of Coffee County, where a third of the population struggles to read. On the day of Georgia’s primary elections in May, she woke up early to rally voters and volunteer. ProPublica followed her to capture what it takes to ensure that voters who need help can get it.
To learn more, check out ProPublica’s investigation of Coley-Pearson’s fight and the persistent suppression of low-literacy voters, read our story about successful voting reforms, and see our guide on how to get help with voting.