Court Stops North Dakota From Rejecting Ballots Based on Error-Prone Signature Match System

Issues

Judge faults state for ‘outright disenfranchisement’ of qualified voters

BISMARCK, ND – Today, a federal court temporarily suspended North Dakota’s enforcement of a law that resulted in the rejection of mail-in ballots using an error-prone signature match process, in which election workers compare the signature on voters’ absentee ballot application to the one on their return envelope. The opinion called North Dakota’s system “outright disenfranchisement” of qualified voters, chiding the state for giving voters no notice or any opportunity to respond if election officials reject their ballots for a perceived signature discrepancy. Election officials receive no training in signature comparison. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, North Dakota’s June 9 primary will be an exclusively vote by mail election.

Campaign Legal Center (CLC) is representing Self Advocacy Solutions, the League of Women Voters North Dakota, and Maria Fallon Romo, who has multiple sclerosis, which causes difficulties with her handwriting. Mrs. Romo had her ballot rejected due to a mismatched signature. The court ordered the parties to submit to the court proposed procedures to be implemented by county auditor no later than June 5.

“All eligible voters should be able to have confidence that when they participate in an election, their vote will be counted,” said Mark Gaber, director, trial litigation at Campaign Legal Center (CLC). “This is a win for voters who spoke out and said they should not be subjected to a handwriting test. Given the disproportionate impact of signature match policies on voters with disabilities, states must give everyone an opportunity to prove that they cast their ballot with proper notice so their votes count.”

"The state's signature match policy disproportionately impacted the disability community, which can struggle to produce consistent signatures," said AJ Marx, president of Self Advocacy Solutions, ND. "We are proud of this win for our community; we will now be able to advocate for ourselves in elections without fear of having our ballots rejected for no good reason."

“This was the common-sense decision to protect voters’ constitutional rights,” said Jan Lynch, president of the League of Women Voters of North Dakota. “Reliable mail voting is essential during the ongoing pandemic, especially for individuals at higher risk of severe illness. With the assurance of a notification and remedy method, North Dakota voters can now cast their ballots with confidence.” 

36 states have some form of signature match requirements on the books. They vary dramatically in the generosity of the scope of voters’ ability to fix the problem if they are flagged for a mismatch. Some states provide immediate notice to voters if their ballot is rejected and allow voters to fix it for up to 21 days after the election. Other states, like North Dakota, do not notify voters at all.