George mangeni registered to vote as soon as he became a U.S. citizen in 2015. Mangeni, who immigrated from Kenya, always makes sure to cast a ballot in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, where he lives.
A couple of months later, he received a call from the ACLU of Ohio, informing him that his ballot had been rejected. “I was surprised twofold,” he said. “One, how the heck did they find out? And then why was it not counted?”
“Everybody’s vote should count,” says Hannah Fried, the national campaign director at All Voting Is Local, a nonprofit that seeks to expand voting access. “If you’re an eligible voter and you voted, your ballot should not be rejected for a highly technical reason out of your control—because the signature was sloppy, or you cannot write in the same way you used to be able to write. There’s something fundamentally unfair about it.”
The training and rules for officials are all over the place too. Florida law says that ballots can be rejected because of a mismatch, but a 2019 lawsuit filed by Democrats complained that the state offered no training or procedures for officials assessing signatures, “resulting in processes that are demonstrably standardless, inconsistent, and unreliable.” Under a new law, the state must offer standardized training, and a two-hour training video is posted online. You can also watch an Oregon training session on YouTube. Colorado, which conducts its elections via mail, posts its signature-verification guide online.
Your mileage may vary, but these materials didn’t give me a great deal of confidence in the system. It’s not that election officials aren’t trying—the presentations are earnest and straightforward—but they offer fairly minimal training to the people who will decide whether someone’s vote for president gets to count. Professional forensic document examiners are typically trained for two to three years, but even the most robust training systems for election officials are more like eight hours. Some of the judgment calls depicted in the materials are obvious mismatches, but others are much fuzzier.
“We believe in signature verification, and when we do that verification, we’re really confirming someone’s identity,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, told me. “So it’s important to do that for us in Colorado. But I will say that we believe in accessible elections. And if you have a right to vote, you should have your voice heard.”
The bias toward inclusion is sometimes a matter of policy and sometimes a matter of law. In the Oregon seminar video, for example, a trainer explains: “You’re looking for reasons to keep the signature in, to validate the signature, rather than looking for reasons to throw the signature out. That was—in the last few years that internally has been a mindset shift that we have really focused on. We’re looking for any reason to keep the signature.” In Florida, a voter’s signature can be rejected only if a majority vote of the canvassing board concludes beyond a reasonable doubt that it does not match.
Because many states have expanded access to voting by mail, and many more voters tell pollsters they intend to use it, it’s impossible to predict rejection rates this year. Will states that are new to the game maintain their old strict standards? Or will they adopt the more lenient approach of vote-by-mail states, in the service of trying to make sure as many votes are counted as possible? These answers could make a big difference to the presidential race in close states, and certainly to down-ballot races. Officials will also face a new challenge: Many people will vote absentee who have never done so in the past, which means they’re more likely to make errors in the process, including submitting shoddy signatures or failing to sign ballots or envelopes at all. According to a study of Florida’s 2016 and 2018 elections, first-time mail-in voters are nearly three times more likely to have their ballot rejected.
“In a state like Wisconsin in 2016, or even Georgia, where the rejection rate in [Democrat] Stacey Abrams’ election [for governor] was as high as it was, signature matching could make or break the states,” says Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama. “That’s why there’s a lot of litigation now at the front end.”
The disparities have inspired occasional demands for states to scrap signature laws altogether. In order to end a lawsuit earlier this year, the state of Pennsylvania announced that ballots cannot be thrown out solely because an official believes there is a signature mismatch. But Gupta told me that, despite the problems with the process, there are good reasons for states to have signature-matching requirements. “It’s an important security measure that can lead to greater voter confidence,” she said—all the more relevant given public concerns about the integrity of elections.
Yet only 18 states mandate a curing process, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures, and these too are a patchwork, with requirements as varied as mailing a notice, calling on the telephone call, or simply making “reasonable efforts.” The deadlines for curing range from 8 p.m. on Election Day, in Montana, to 21 days after Election Day, in Washington. Several states have new procedures, including Georgia, which passed a curing law in 2019, and Arizona, where a federal judge ruled in September that voters must have until five days after Election Day to correct errors.
Voters can take a few steps to try to keep their ballot from being rejected. It’s useful to keep track of the signature you use for official documents and keep that consistent. Reading instructions carefully is important, especially because they are not always user-friendly. It’s also wise to mail or turn in ballots as soon as possible, to leave enough time for curing in states that allow it. Perhaps the simple best step a voter can take is to vote in person, either early or on Election Day, because voter errors are much less likely to disqualify votes cast in person. Earlier this year, some experts believed that as many as seven in 10 ballots would be cast by mail, but a recent NPR survey found that just 35 percent of voters now intend to vote that way, while a Navigator poll found a six-point drop between August and October in the number of Democrats who intend to vote by mail.
Although some of the rejection rates from primaries early in 2020 were extremely troubling, Patrick told me she expected improvement in November as states that were caught off-guard by the pandemic professionalize their approach. “Between the primary and the general, many states have adopted these best practices,” she said. “I’m hopeful that those changes in the process are going to help inform the voters.”
In Ohio, a federal judge ruled against the ACLU in September, concluding it was too late for the state to eliminate its signature-matching requirement for the 2020 election. Mangeni told me he agreed with the judge’s reasoning, but still hopes the requirement will be lifted in future elections. He told me he doesn’t blame his local officials for his ballot being rejected: “If I am given a bunch of signatures, and I’m under the gun to count 50,000 ballots, it’s hard. There’s a reason they have experts in court to analyze this,” he said.
The broader problem, in his view, is that requirements such as signature verification make it harder for valid voters to cast their ballot. “For a country that promotes democracy and goes around the world telling people they have the right to do stuff, for them to make it harder for me to exercise my right to vote is hypocritical,” he said.
As for November’s election, Mangeni isn’t taking any chances. He’ll be going to his local polling place to cast a vote in person.
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