Voting Rights Groups Challenge New Jersey Signature Match Ballot Requirement

Issues

NEWARK, NJ —Today, Campaign Legal Center, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and Kaufman Lieb Lebowitz & Frick LLP filed a lawsuit on behalf of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, and an individual New Jersey voter, asking for relief for voters from the state’s flawed ballot signature match requirements.  

As New Jersey continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Phil Murphy announced Friday that mail ballots will automatically be sent to the state’s active Republican and Democratic voters, with applications sent to unaffiliated and inactive registered voters. The resultant surge in mail ballots underscores the urgent need for procedural safeguards to assure voters that they can cast their mail ballots with confidence.

With a ‘signature match’ system, mail-in ballots are only counted if election officials determine that the voter’s signature on a ballot “matches” the signature on an absentee ballot application or voter registration form. As a result, thousands of ballots are rejected each election because of issues related to signature or penmanship, including a signature changing over time and disabilities affecting one’s ability to write.

“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.”

Moreover, New Jersey voters who cast their ballot by mail and whose signatures are deemed not to “match” are not given any pre-rejection notice or opportunity to fix any errors. League of Women Voters of New Jersey, et al. v. Way demands that the state establish a clear and fair notice process for voters whose ballots are marked for rejection, as well as a safe and easy way for them to remedy any technical defects in time for their vote to be counted.

Joining the lawsuit is William M. Riggs, a 78-year-old Middlesex County resident whose hand tremors brought on by Parkinson’s disease make it virtually impossible for him to sign his name consistently. Mr. Riggs intends to vote by mail in this year’s upcoming elections in order to protect his health from the threat of COVID-19. Because he cannot produce a consistent signature – even at times finding his own writing illegible – Mr. Riggs fears his ballot could very likely be rejected. Without a safe way for him to fix his ballot, Mr. Riggs is at high risk of disenfranchisement. 

Even before the global pandemic, voters across the country have increasingly relied upon vote-by-mail as their preferred method of casting their ballot. 36 states use some form of signature match to confirm mail-in or absentee ballots. These states must ensure voter confidence by establishing clear, accessible ways for voters to cure their ballots and ensure their votes are counted.  

 “The COVID-19 crisis has exposed deep cracks in our society’s foundation, which are causing earthquakes in Black and Brown communities,” said Ryan P. Haygood, President & CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “We filed this lawsuit today to protect our democracy from those earthquakes, as substantially more voters will cast their ballots by mail during this pandemic. Our lawsuit urges New Jersey to provide notice to thousands of voters when their ballots are rejected, which is particularly important for Black and Brown voters whose ballots are disproportionately rejectedand to provide an opportunity to fix any signature-related issues in time for their votes to be counted in the July 7 election. Democracy, particularly as we confront one of the most consequential elections in a generation, requires nothing less. 

“It is unacceptable to deprive people of their franchise to vote, particularly using the unproven method of signature matching,” said Richard T. Smith, president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference. “In the current landscape of the world regarding COVID-19 we must ensure now more than ever that we encourage people to go out and vote for those who have their best interest in mind. Having ballots rejected without an opportunity to cure – which is occurring at the highest rates in our most diverse counties – deprives people their right to vote and we cannot allow it to continue.” 

“Because of our efforts to keep our democracy both safe and robust during the coronavirus pandemic, millions of voters will receive vote-by-mail ballots ahead of the July primary,” said Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “Now the state needs to safeguard voters’ constitutional rights and ensure every vote counts. We need a process in place immediately that allows voters to cure their ballots if they make minor errors, or voters will be disenfranchised.”