Establishing Fair Policies for Voting in States with Signature Match Requirements

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Campaign Legal Center (CLC) is fighting to require states that use signature match policies to examine mail-in or absentee ballots also have “notice and cure” procedures so that voters’ ballots aren’t rejected due to perceived penmanship issues. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, this issue has gained urgency as more voters choose to use mail-in ballots.

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Recently, Trevor Potter, president of Campaign Legal Center (CLC), joined Kara Swisher, contributing opinion writer at The New York Times, on her podcast “Sway” to discuss the legal battles shaping our democracy right now.

While the podcast highlighted many campaign finance and voting rights issues, the main focus was on CLC’s victories around...

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About this Action

At all times, but especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, voters need access to safe, secure, reliable options for voting. One option should be voting-by-mail or casting an absentee ballot. About 6 in 10 voters plan to vote by mail or cast an absentee ballot nationwide, according to a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll released in September. In order to confirm the identity of the person submitting the ballot, at least 31 states rely on signature match procedures as part of their counting or verification procedures, to the best of Campaign Legal Center’s (CLC) knowledge.

Signature matching laws require election officials to compare the signatures voters provide on their ballots to the signatures on their voter registration or absentee ballot request forms. If election officials determine the signatures do not match, the ballot is rejected and not counted. Signature evaluation is notoriously unreliable and error-prone. It can result in ballot rejections based on nothing more than poor penmanship.

These errors also do not affect all voters equally. Voters with disabilities, the elderly, non-native English speakers, and racial minorities are all more likely to have their ballots rejected due to signature match issues. This is especially troubling given that many of these groups are more susceptible to contracting a serious illness from COVID-19 and have experienced heightened levels of voter suppression due to restrictive photo ID laws, polling place closures, and state voter roll purges in recent years.

Therefore, when a state relies on signature matching to verify absentee ballots, it must provide voters notice of signature problems, and a meaningful opportunity to verify their identity and ensure their votes are counted. These so-called “notice and cure” policies are mandated by U.S. Constitution.

Some notice and cure policies protect against erroneous rejection better than others. The most effective policies share two important features:

  1. Notice and Cure by Phone. The most efficient and effective way to notify voters about signatures issues is by phone—not mail. In a quick call, a voter can verify their identity and have their vote counted. Mail can be delayed, especially near Election Day, making it difficult to fix issues before the election concludes. In the North Dakota’s June 2020 primary, as shown below, 83% of voters notified by phone were able to verify their ballot in time to be counted as compared to only 34% of voters notified by mail alone. States must make every effort to contact voters by mail and phone where possible, and permit voters to verify their ballot with any oral or written response.
  2. Sufficient Time to Cure. Voters must have time to fix ballot problems before election results are finalized. States should create sufficient time in two ways: (i) allowing election officials to begin processing and verifying absentee ballots as they are received or at least five days before Election Day, and (ii) permitting voters to fix ballot issues for a maximum possible time after Election Day.

So far, nine states—including Maine, North Dakota, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania—have created notice and cure policies in 2020 after lawsuits or advocacy by CLC and allied organizations. Four states—Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, and South Dakota—still do not have any notice and cure policy; all but South Dakota are now in pending litigation.

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