This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch.
The North Carolina Republican Party wants local county elections officials to set aside requests for absentee ballots and to double-check the mail-in ballots themselves based on whether they think voter signatures match.
Voting rights groups said signature verification for ballots is a terrible idea.
“To me, this is very alarming,” said Marian Lewin, a vice president in the League of Women Voters of North Carolina.
Requiring signature matches would negate instructions that State Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell sent county boards in July 2020 on how to handle absentee ballot requests. Included in the five-and-a-half page memo is the instruction that county elections officials should not try to match signatures on absentee ballot requests with signatures in voter files, because the law allows near relatives or guardians to request mail-in ballots for voters.
State law has rules for mail-in ballots, which include requiring voters and a notary, or the voter and two witnesses, to sign the ballot envelopes. The law doesn’t say anything about signatures matches.
“The voter’s signature should not be compared with the voter’s signature on file because this is not required by North Carolina law,” the 2020 instructions say. “Additionally, attempting to verify a voter’s signature would result in different treatment of absentee request forms, since it is not possible to verify the signature of the near relative or legal guardian. If the absentee request form appears to have been signed by the voter or near relative, you should accept the signature as valid.”
Security or suppression?
But the state GOP says verifying signatures is part of election officials’ job. State Republicans want the elections board to issue a ruling that would allow county elections officials to compare voter signatures they have on file not only against those on the mail-in ballot envelopes, but also on the requests voters sign to obtain the ballots.
Signature verification would present a hurdle to some voters in getting their absentee ballots sent to them or having their votes counted. Some voters have time to correct problems with absentee ballots, but not all do.
“This is really a pretty sweeping change in election policy that normally would go through legislation,” Lewin said. “It’s not an administrative issue.”
In its request, the Republican Party wrote that it was part of the county board’s job to guard against potential illegal votes. The Republicans’ letter suggested they would go to court if the board decided against them, mentioning that the board’s ruling would be open to “judicial review.”
“Allowing potential illegal votes to count on the basis of the NCSBE stripping the boards of this valuable tool to verify voters decreases public confidence in our elections,” says the request. It was signed by Philip R. Thomas, NC GOP chief counsel and strategy director, and Kevin J. Cline, a lawyer who is representing both a member of the Cumberland County Board of Elections and a candidate for the Guilford County Board of Commissioners.
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, said signature verification is unnecessary because the state has some of the highest standards in the country for absentee ballots.
State law requires two witnesses to watch a voter fill out an absentee ballot. The witnesses must sign their names and provide their addresses on the absentee ballot envelopes. As an alternative, a notary can watch a voter fill out an absentee ballot. Notaries are also required sign the ballot envelopes.
North Carolina is one of only three states requiring two witness signatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twelve states require at least one witness or a notary.
“In my mind, it is unnecessary and would be just another way of making voting harder and maybe denying or disenfranchising registered voters from having their votes count,” Phillips said. “There is no good reason for this to be something the state does. It would be expensive to administer, and difficult if not impossible to actually enforce.”
People’s signatures change over time, Phillips said, and someone’s signature on an absentee ballot in 2022 may look nothing like the signature on the voter registration application signed decades ago.
Different impacts for different voters
Joselle Torres, communications manager with Democracy NC, said giving county boards of election the discretion to reject mail-in ballots and ballot applications would be a problem. Research in other states has shown that ballots from Black, Indigenous, Latinx, disabled, and elderly voters are disproportionately rejected, she said.
The GOP request to allow signature verification says that county boards and their members should be able to use “all available resources at their disposal” to fulfill their duties.
Elections officials in some parts of the country are using automated systems for signature checks.
Torres said some county boards have more money than others, and budgets are already stretched. That could lead to some county boards doing more signature checks than others.
“We have proved time and time again that we have safe, fair, transparent elections here in North Carolina and at the county board, this additional requirement, from our perspective is really going to be an administrative burden.”
Research has found that mail-in ballots from young voters and voters of color are more likely to have their signatures rejected.
“There are a lot of problems with signature verification, no question about that,” said Daniel A. Smith, political science professor at the University of Florida.
Smith has authored or co-authored several studies of absentee ballot rejection in Florida and Georgia. His 2018 study for the ACLU of Florida found that younger voters and voters of color were more likely to have their absentee ballots rejected and less likely to have them “cured” or corrected, when they are set aside for signature problems.
A 2020 study of Florida voting by mail in the 2016 and 2018 elections that Smith co-authored found that “younger voters, voters not registered with a major political party, and voters in need of assistance when voting are disproportionately likely to have their VBM [vote by mail] ballots not count. We also find disproportionately high rejection rates of mail ballots cast by Hispanic voters, out-of-state voters, and military dependents in the 2018 general election.”
The study found that some counties were much more likely to reject ballots than others, suggesting a lack of uniformity in verifying ballots.
An audit of ballot rejections in the state of Washington published this year by the Washington state auditor’s office found that “the most significant variable” in ballot rejection was the county where the ballot was cast.
“There’s a tremendous amount of discretion in this subjective process of validating signatures,” Smith said in an interview with Policy Watch.
“Signatures change over time and with respect to circumstances,” Smith said. People tend to sign their names differently on touchpads versus when they put pen to paper. Signatures that are digitized, as they are in many voter files, look different from signatures on paper, he added.
Twenty-seven states conduct signature verification on absentee ballots, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. None of those states, however, require voters to obtain witness or notary signatures. Over the last several years, the ACLU has sued several states over their signature matching practices.
Public comments invited
The NC Board of Elections voted last week to solicit written public comments on signature matching before making a decision on the GOP request.
By early Wednesday, it had received hundreds of emails and comments submitted through its web portal. Policy Watch submitted a public records request to obtain those comments. Click here to learn more, including how you can submit a comment.
Opponents said signature verification would introduce subjectivity into election administration or be a tool for voter suppression. Several said their own handwriting had changed over the years due to arthritis or other ailment.
One Chapel Hill resident said her husband who has advanced Parkinson’s disease and lives in a skilled nursing facility wouldn’t be able to vote anymore, ending his record of voting in every primary and general election for 25 years.
“Because of his illness there is no way that his signature on file would match the one on his recent ballot,” she wrote.
One opponent wrote, “I have no idea what my signature looked like on my voter registration. Giving someone the authority to examine and compare my signatures makes me extremely nervous and undermines my trust, especially given the fact that they are not handwriting experts.”
Supporters of the GOP’s request wrote that signature matching is needed to verify legal voters.
“I think signature verification is the best way to ensure voter integrity at this time,” wrote one commenter.
Other signature verification supporters said all voting should be done in person, with signature matching and photo ID.
The board will likely receive much more input before the public comment period ends July 5.
“We’re definitely opposing it and encouraging others to weigh in,” said Phillips of Common Cause. “It is unnecessary, and in our mind, just another ploy by those who want to make voting more difficult for everybody.”
The two Republican members on the five-member state elections board said at the meeting this month that they would support signature verification.
Stacy “Four” Eggers IV, a Republican member from Boone, said he verified voter ballot signatures when he was on a county board and was concerned when local boards were told they could not do it.
The board discussed making an immediate decision or making time for public comment.
Republican member Tommy Tucker first advocated for an immediate vote for the sake of expediency, but later joined in the unanimous decision to allow for a public comment period with a decision sometime in mid-July.
Board Chairman Damon Circosta said the board should move quickly, but deliberately.
“It’s such a significant and important role that we all have, which is to make sure we can verify our elections and also make sure our elections are accessible and not discriminatory,” he said.
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