Campaign Legal Center Challenges North Dakota’s Practice of Rejecting Ballots Based on Handwriting
BISMARCK, ND – North Dakota uses an error-prone verification process that disenfranchises eligible absentee voters when the handwriting on their absentee ballot application is deemed by election officials as a “mismatch” compared to the signature on their return envelope containing their ballot. Today, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) filed a lawsuit challenging this practice in federal court. CLC is representing Self Advocacy Solutions, the League of Women Voters of North Dakota, and a Grand Forks, ND woman, Maria Fallon Romo, whose multiple sclerosis affects her ability to write with consistent handwriting. Hundreds of thousands of ballots were rejected nationally in 2018, and Romo’s was one of them. Among these, an estimated 32% were rejected because of signature issues. The lawsuit seeks court intervention so that North Dakota must provide all absentee voters the opportunity to fix signature verification issues before their ballots are thrown away. Under the threat of the pandemic, vote-by-mail in the state’s June primary election will be the voters’ only option.
Currently, 36 states have some form of signature match requirements on the books, but they vary dramatically. Some states provide immediate notice to voters if their ballot is rejected, and allow voters to resolve the issue up to 21 days after the election. Others, like North Dakota, do not notify voters at all.
“All eligible voters should be able to have confidence that when they participate in an election, their vote will be counted,” said Paul Smith, vice president at CLC. “Signature comparison is not a science. Even if it was, election officials are not trained handwriting experts. The current system produces many incorrect mismatches which result in eligible voters having their ballot thrown away. These errors – which disproportionately affect those with disabilities, the elderly and non-native English speakers – must be fixed with urgency during this critical election year.”
“Everyone who votes deserves their vote to be counted,” said AJ Marx, president at Self-Advocacy Solutions. “Voting is the way we can all effect positive change.”
“North Dakota’s signature match system is prone to errors, which means too many ballots are incorrectly rejected,” said Jan Lynch, president of the League of Women Voters of North Dakota. “Without clear notification and a way for voters to cure their ballots, too many voters are disenfranchised by this process. Most often, these are people who already struggle with ballot access: those with disabilities, the elderly, young people, and those who learned to write in a first language that is not English.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced states and localities to consider expanding remote voting options to protect public health, Americans have increasingly chosen to cast their votes by mail in recent elections. Nationally, there were 42.5 million votes cast by mail in 2018. In a presidential election year under the threat of a viral pandemic, that number is expected to surge. This raises the importance of having a smooth vote-by-mail system in which voters have confidence that when they follow the rules and cast a valid ballot, their vote will be counted.
Plaintiff Romo has multiple sclerosis, which causes her to lose feeling in her fingers and impacts her fine motor skills. When she voted in 2018, she was unaware that the handwriting in her signature on her absentee ballot request form would be compared to the one she provided on her ballot envelope to determine the validity of her ballot. She was surprised to learn that her vote did not count in 2018. Ms. Romo was not given notice that her ballot had been rejected. Had she been given the opportunity to fix it, she would have taken whatever steps necessary to correct the issue and make sure her vote counted. Ms. Romo hopes to vote in the 2020 elections.
League of Women Voters North Dakota is the state chapter of a national nonpartisan organization that encourages informed and active participation in government.
Self Advocacy Solutions is a nonprofit that works statewide to promote civil rights and equal access for people with disabilities. The organization encourages members to exercise their right to vote in elections.