Ballot Errors Linked to Illiteracy

Published February 1, 2001

Although Jesse Jackson claims racism is behind the disproportionate disqualification of black votes in Florida in the recent national elections, the fact that illiteracy levels are disproportionately higher in Florida’s black-majority congressional districts suggests the inability to read is a much more likely culprit for spoiled ballots.

Ironically, although African-Americans voted overwhelmingly against George W. Bush, one of the new President’s top education priorities is to ensure that every child can read by third grade.

“People who can’t read and write may be capable of making perfectly realistic political judgements,” says Wall Street Journal columnist Holman W. Jenkins Jr., “but they’re going to have a harder time translating this into a clean ballot.”

Because of “the racial gerrymandering of Florida congressional districts,” Jenkins notes that literacy levels in black-majority districts can be compared with the literacy levels in the counties the districts are part of. Jenkins looked in particular at literacy levels in the three counties where Vice President Al Gore chose to challenge Bush’s vote lead and where black voter “disenfranchisement” is alleged: Miami-Dade, Broward, and Duval Counties.

While slightly more than one-third (34 percent) of the adult population of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties are functionally illiterate, almost half (49 percent) of the adults in the 17th Congressional district–which represents the black neighborhoods in those two counties–are functionally illiterate, according to the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS). Functional illiteracy is the lowest level of literacy: a functionally illiterate adult can read a little, but not well enough to fill out an application, read a food label, or read a simple story to a child.

Jenkins noted that a similar disparity in literacy levels is observed in the black-majority 3rd Congressional district compared to Duval County as a whole: Twenty-one percent of adults in the county are classed as functionally illiterate, versus 37 percent of adults in the black-majority district. The story is the same among adults in Palm Beach County (22 percent functional illiteracy) compared to the county’s black-majority 23rd Congressional district (39 percent functional illiteracy). Palm Beach County was where a so-called “butterfly” ballot was used on November 7, allegedly causing confusion among both white and black voters.

In last year’s Presidential campaign, one of candidate Bush’s strongest indictments of the Clinton-Gore administration was that it had failed to narrow the achievement gap between disadvantaged students–who are predominantly minority–and their peers. Bush is committed to closing that gap nationally. Bush believes schools must have clear, measurable goals focused on basic skills and essential knowledge. The attainment of such skills and knowledge would significantly reduce the levels of functional illiteracy among students exiting the public school system.

A key Bush goal for public education is to ensure that every child–disadvantaged or otherwise–can read by third grade. This is far from the case right now, with four out of 10 fourth-graders nationwide lacking basic reading skills, and that ratio rising to seven out of 10 in the nation’s poorest schools.

Yet adult literacy is more than just being able to read at a 12th-grade level. The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 takes a broad view of literacy as “an individual’s ability to read, write, speak in English, compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the family of the individual, and in society.” In an information-driven technology-rich society, the skills needed to function successfully go well beyond reading.

In the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey, the test items resembled everyday life tasks that demand skills to deal with prose, documents, and quantitative content. The NALS classified the results into five levels now commonly used to describe adults’ literacy skills:

  • At Level 1, adults can read a little but not well enough to fill out an application, read a food label, or read a simple story to a child; this is functional illiteracy;
  • At Level 2, adults usually can perform more complex tasks such as comparing, contrasting, or integrating pieces of information, but usually not higher-level reading and problem-solving skills; this is where adults generally can pick out ideas from newspaper articles and make sense of transportation timetables;
  • At Levels 3 through 5, adults usually can perform the same types of more complex tasks on increasingly lengthy and dense texts and documents.

Literacy experts believe that adults at Levels 1 and 2 lack a sufficient foundation of basic skills to function successfully in our society. According to the NALS database, approximately three-quarters of the adult population in Florida’s black-majority Congressional districts 3, 17 and 23 possess only Level 1 or Level 2 literacy skills. Nationwide, NALS estimates that about half the adult population–close to 100 million people–fall into these two categories, with 21 to 23 percent scoring at Level 1 and another 25 to 28 percent scoring at Level 2.

More than 60 percent of adults in Level 1 did not complete high school. And while very few adults in the U.S. are “truly illiterate,” the National Institute for Literacy somberly points out that “there are many adults with low literacy skills who lack the foundation they need to find and keep decent jobs, support their children’s education, and participate actively in civic life.”

For more information . . .

Synthetic estimates of adult literacy proficiency by state, county, congressional district, and city or town are available from the National Institute for Literacy Web site at database was developed by Portland University research professor Stephen Reder.