SDARJ opposes SB26’s literacy requirement

February 17, 2023

The Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice opposes SB26. Ostensibly a clean-up bill that lowers the voting age in the Delaware Constitution from 21 to 18, the first leg of this constitutional amendment passed in the 151st session. It is now up for vote again in this legislative session. Unfortunately, the effort to clean up this article in the constitution left intact a literacy requirement: that voters be able to read the constitution in English and write their name. SDARJ cannot support this constitutional amendment in this form.

An educated electorate is, of course, desirable. And the ability to answer questions about our constitution and history is a reasonable requirement for naturalized citizens. But let’s not pretend that the ability to read the constitution in English has anything to do with a citizen’s ability to decide which candidate to vote for based on that candidate’s support for or opposition to issues of concern to voters. Literacy tests, along with poll taxes, residency and property restrictions, and illegal activities (violence and intimidation) were all used to deny suffrage to African Americans. If enforced, this requirement in our constitution could exclude persons with minimal literacy, in particular, poor African Americans who do not have the benefit of a good public education, from voting. 

Further, the requirement that a voter be able to read the constitution in English, if enforced, would disenfranchise many of our citizens for whom English is a second language. Federal and state judiciaries are required by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to enact Language Access Plans in order for persons with limited or no English proficiency to be able to access the judicial system. It is ironic that the Delaware Constitution could potentially bar such citizens from voting.

Similarly, persons with cognitive disorders such as aphasia may be unable to understand what they read, even though they can comprehend the spoken word and can communicate effectively themselves. Article V’s literacy requirement exception for those with physical disabilities may not be broad enough to encompass certain cognitive disabilities. Again, the Federal Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act require judiciaries to provide such cognitively impacted individuals with reasonable accommodations that some states have used, such as readers and notetakers. But under our constitution, such citizens might be disenfranchised because they cannot read the constitution in English.

Finally, the requirement that a voter have the ability to write his or her name is increasingly archaic in this world, where students are no longer taught cursive writing and electronic signatures on official documents are accepted. Even among people who have been taught cursive, an unintelligible scrawl is accepted as a signature on legal documents. 

If the Legislature’s intention is to clean up Section 2 of Article V, then let’s do the job right. Let’s start over again and eliminate the literacy requirement, as well as changing the voting age. The literacy requirement potentially interferes with voting access for African Americans, those for whom English is a second language and disabled persons.

Clara S. Licata
Chair, Legislative Advocacy Committee
Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice
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