How thousands of Philadelphians are overcoming literacy barriers to cast their vote

Written by on December 5, 2020

By Sojourner Ahebee | Votebeat

Linda Hyden cast her first ballot shortly before the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The year was 1964, and she had recently moved to Philadelphia. She was 20 at the time and remembers voting for Lyndon B. Johnson in that presidential election.

“I was 16-years-old when I left North Carolina,” recalled the 75-year-old Philadelphia resident.

Hyden is one of the six million African Americans who left the rural south between 1916 and 1970 in the advent of the Great Migration.

Though the 19th Amendment granted Black women in the United States the right to vote, voter disenfranchisement in the South persisted into the late 60s. It was common for white election officials in the south to tell Black voters they got the election day or polling location wrong.  And Hyden is from the same rural south that instituted literacy tests as a way to disenfranchise Black voters from casting their ballots.

That means theoretically, by law, Hyden would have been eligible to vote in North Carolina when she turned 18.  When she moved to Philadelphia and could take part in the next Presidential Election, she was free of the many voter intimidation tactics that characterized the south.

She’s never missed an election since then, even though she’s one of the 550,000 adults in the city who struggle to read.

And the obstacles to voting when you have low-literacy skills abound

Filling out a voter registration form, identifying candidates on a mail-in or in-person ballot, reading instructions for how to properly return a ballot: These all become barriers of entry to participating in the democratic process.

Over half a million adults in Philadelphia lack basic literacy skills

Most cities in the United States need better resources for adult education. Philadelphia is no exception, says Catalina Gonzalez, senior manager of Adult Education Services within the city’s Office of Children and Families.

“According to the most recent information from the National Center for Education, we know that over half a million people aged 16 and over are struggling to perform basic reading, writing and math skills,” said Gonzalez.

That’s more than a quarter of Philadelphia’s population who have low-literacy skills. That can mean someone who struggles to write their name, but the spectrum of literacy is more expansive than that. It includes things like comprehension and vocabulary. Critical thinking and numeracy are also factors.

“We could have students who read well but reach the end of the passage and [do] not know what was stated, and won’t be able to respond to questions,” said Marcus Hall, who’s an instructor at the Community Learning Center (CLC), one of the many city agencies that provide educational resources for low-literacy adults in Philadelphia.

“Many of our students are scoring within the fifth and sixth grade [reading] level and this is across all ages,” said Hall.

Obstacles at the poll abound for low-literacy voters

When Hyden settled in West Philadelphia, she was pregnant at the time and was forced to drop out of school and find work to support her baby daughter, Susan.

“I came [to Philadelphia] to live with my sister[who] took me in and helped me raise my child,” she said.

Hyden took a job as a school bus driver for the School District of Philadelphia and worked there for 25 years. 

She never got a chance to go back to school and get her GED. That is until now. 

Four years ago, she enrolled in classes at the Community Learning Center and is working towards her degree. Hall, who was one of  her teachers at the CLC, says the impetus to vote  amongst low-literacy adults is high. During the 2020 election  cycle, Hall received a lot of questions from his students about Trump’s attempt to invalidate mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania.

“I’ve been through a number of elections with this agency and the level of intrigue has been [huge] in terms of how engaged the students are in the [voting] process.”

The CLC’s student support team conducts voter education workshops for their low-literacy constituents during election cycles. Hall says people who struggle to read contend with many challenges even before they get to the polls.

“Whether it be understanding where to sign [or] what type of ink to use, all that stuff takes a certain level of comprehension,” said Hall. “And in Pennsylvania where the smallest thing could discredit a ballot, there’s a lot of concern there.”

Hyden’s daughter, Susan, is 58 now. Because of the  global pandemic, she helped her mother request a mail-in ballot online this year so she could vote safely in the 2020 election.

“I received [my ballot] on October the second,” said Hyden. “City hall was closed and I did not trust the mail. So on October the 5th I carried it to City Hall myself.”

 Ballot numbers are a ‘big deal’ for voters who struggle to read

But for low-literacy individuals who don’t have that same kind of support at home, there are other options.  

Philadelphia City Commissioner Lisa Deeley says any voter can request assistance at the polls on the Election Day. If someone needs help having the ballot read to them, by law they’re allowed to have one person accompany them into the booth, with the exception of their employer or the local judge of elections.  

And thanks to the new voting machines introduced in Philadelphia last year, voters can choose to have the ballot read aloud in English or Spanish.

“They just hook up [the headphones to the voting machine] and it will actually just read the entire ballot for the voter and they can mark their selections on the keypad just like [everyone else],” said Deeley.

Ballot numbers have also been the saving grace for many voters who struggle to read. Every candidate running for election has a ballot number that’s associated with their name.

“Historically, one of the bridges to help voters that have literacy issues has always been the ballot numbers,” Deeley explained. “So ballot numbers in Philadelphia are a big deal. People use them as a way to identify the candidates that they choose to support and to vote for.”

There’s a link between ‘literacy, poverty, poor health and incarceration’

While the City Commissioner’s office does track the number of voter assist requests they receive within a given election, it isn’t clear how many of those requests are coming from low-literacy voters. Philadelphia residents can request assistance for a number of reasons — for instance, they could need help translating something, or they might need help because they are disabled. 

But Philadelphia City Commissioner Omar Sabir said he knows the need for low-literacy assistance at the polls is enormous by just looking at the adult literacy rate in the city. Sabir is part of a task force that will focus on creating more accessible elections for low-literacy voters. He says one of the things he’d like to change is getting the ballot numbers on mail-in ballots as well. Currently, they are not included on the paper ballots residents request by mail.

“These are one of the high priorities we have been working on,” said Sabir. “We want to team up with the top literacy organizations that provide these services and we’re gonna try to simplify the ballot questions [and] do workshops. It’s going to be a buy-in from everyone.”

Robin Robinowitz is the Chief Development Officer at Philadelphia’s Center for Literacy, a city program that offers college and career readiness classes for individuals who have low levels of literacy or need a high school diploma. She says voting advocacy for adults who lack basic reading and writing skills must start with addressing some of the underlying issues that exacerbate the city’s low-literacy rates.

Philadelphia’s poverty rate is double the national average and the highest among the ten largest cities in the U.S.,” said Robinowitz. “And research clearly shows the link between low-literacy, poverty, poor health and the likelihood of incarceration.”

But there’s been a disinvestment in adult education on the state and federal level as a whole. For every $14,716 spent on a student in Philadelphia public and charter schools, an adult learner received less than $2,000 in 2017. That means seven times as much funding is being dedicated to K-12 education compared to funding for adult education in the city.

“And last year the Mayor proposed to eliminate the Office Of Adult Education (OAE) as well as its funding,” said Hall.

He and fellow instructors from adult literacy agencies across the city came together and sent letters to the City Council pushing them to keep the OAE intact. Ultimately, they were able to get some of the previous funding replaced in the 2021 City budget but the OAE itself was closed and placed under the city’s Office of Children and Family Services.

Hall works with an alliance for adult literacy that is trying to build an advocacy arm for adult education in the city. He says a significant majority of his students make up some of the cities most vulnerable populations. More than half of the adult learners at the Community Learning Center are low-income and a sizable portion of students are formerly-incarcerated, homeless, and struggle to access transportation.

“An investment in adult education is an investment in the health, safety, welfare and wealth of all Philadelphians,” said Robinowitz.

‘Don’t let anyone stop you from voting’

Hyden’s mother couldn’t vote until she was 55 years old. Despite that, she imagined her daughter would get the chance to vote in her lifetime.

“She always said ‘Linda, whatever you do when you grow up, make sure you vote’,” said Hyden. 

Her mother’s wish for her did come true, and despite the challenges literacy places in her way, Hyden honors her mother’s wish for her in every election.

Hyden, who’s been voting for 55  years, has made it a habit to take her children and grandchildren to the polls with her well before they were of voting age. And she encourages family and friends to vote as well.

“I have voter registration papers at my home and if I know you’re turning 18, I make sure you register so you will be able to vote,” said Hyden.

When she wants to learn about a candidate, she listens to the news and encourages family and friends to do the same with her.

“From what I hear, I know who I want to vote for,” she said.

She has advice for all low-literacy voters. “Even if it’s too late for this election, register now to prepare for the next one,” she said. “It is your right to vote without anyone interfering. Don’t let anyone stop you from voting.”


Sojourner Ahebee is WURD Radio’s Votebeat reporter. This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.


Black Talk Media sent straight to your inbox.


The forWURD Movement is your way to
protect and preserve Independent Black Media.

Reader's opinions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current track