Signature Match Laws Disproportionately Impact Voters Already on the Margins

We sign things all the time – to pay for groceries with a credit card or end a letter to a friend, for example. Rarely do our signatures come under scrutiny. Yet, a number of states are denying people the right to vote because the signature on their absentee ballot – and sometimes even on their application for a ballot itself– doesn’t exactly match their signature on the voter registration rolls. And in many cases, the state does not even tell the affected voter that their ballot has been rejected.

Ballots being rejected because of a perceived signature mismatch heavily affects voters already at the margins -- people with disabilities, trans and gender-nonconforming people, women, people for whom English is a second language, and military personnel.

Over the past year, the ACLU has brought a series of lawsuits across the country which challenge signature matching processes that result in the unconstitutional disenfranchisement of eligible voters. In August, we won a case in New Hampshire on the behalf of citizens whose ballots were discarded without their knowledge, who did not even know they had been disenfranchised until the ACLU of New Hampshire called to tell them. In April, we were victorious in California state court on the same issue. Earlier this fall, in Michigan, when signatures were being counted for ballot initiatives, we sued for the same reason. And most recently, the ACLU sued the state of Georgia for rejecting close to 600 absentee ballots for suspected signature mismatches. The ACLU won a temporary restraining order in that case on October 24.

A voter’s signature can change for many reasons. Voters who live with a disability, including many elderly voters, are more likely to vote absentee, due to accessibility issues. It is also more likely that their signature looks different than it did when they first registered to vote. Some degenerative diseases or disabilities with periodic symptoms do not affect a voter at the time of registration but may result in tremors or other symptoms that change the way someone signs their name.

People with eyesight loss often have signatures that change overtime. Our client in New Hampshire, Mary Saucedo, for example, is 95 years old and legally blind. She votes with the help of her husband and cannot sign the same way twice. There are many people like Mrs. Saucedo, who for a variety of reasons, rely on another person to help them sign their ballot envelope – which is legal, and an important component of making voting accessible for people living with disabilities.

Signature matching tends to affect other vulnerable groups as well. People who are transgender may have a different signature, and use a different name than when they initially registered to vote. Due to a plethora of legal, financial and societal barriers, legal name changes are not always possible. If they sign with a name that does not match the name in their voter registration file, or attempt to recreate their old signature, it may trigger a signature mismatch.

Women, who more often change their name upon marriage or divorce, are also affected. The significance of a hyphenated last name or the presence or absence of a spouse’s last name can be an important part of a person’s identity. People who do not speak or write English as their first language and have had to learn to sign their name in a different language are another group impacted. And members of the military and voters living overseas who vote by absentee ballot are more likely to experience signature match issues simply by dint of relying on the absentee voting process.

The U.S. Constitution protects voters’ due process rights. The concept of due process of law requires that all citizens be given fair notice and opportunity to be heard before having one’s rights taken away. The right to vote is a precious one that cannot be stolen from voters without due process.

Disenfranchising a voter should not be done lightly. An official without training in signature or handwriting analysis should not reject a voter’s application or ballot until they notify the voter and give them an opportunity to fix the issue. Without proper notice and opportunity to cure, voters, especially voters with disabilities, elderly voters, trans voters, women voters, ESL voters and military voters, are susceptible to being unfairly excluded from the democratic process.

Absentee ballots are intended to make voting more accessible for qualified voters, not to disenfranchise marginalized populations.

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Anonymous

If I did change my signature due to stiff hands, how do I change the signature on record?

Indiana Voter

I was required to provide an electronic signature at my polling place - standing, with a clunky stylus. In the past, I physically signed a paper page next to my name and address. Does Indiana now require exact match? My county (St Joseph) inexplicably did not count early and absentee votes. Is there any validity to voting in this state?

Nick Pettinato

How does this affect "women" and "transgendered" persons more than anyone else? Are you saying women are more likely to have a shaky hand or something? Please tell me you have a better argument than this tired assertion that anyone who's a minority is somehow too stupid to sign their own name.

Anonymous

Because those populations are more likely to change their name....?

Nick Pettinato

So you're against voter ID and, now, checking voter signature to match their original registration. What else are you going to do to protect voter fraud? File a lawsuit so immigrants and people living in other countries can vote on our elections?

Sid Tschirhart

When I sign my voter registration I am generally siting at a table, writing on a flat surface. When I sign at a voting location I have to sign a digital pad or screen at an unusual angle, standing and unable to rest my hand on a stable surface. Who or how are the two signatures "matched"? How accurate is that matching process?

Cal North

Another factor that can change a few people's signatures: As an officer of a club, I once had to sign 100+ raffle tickets. By the end of that I couldn't read my own name, and it has never come back to any kind of legibility. How about the effect of all those electronic slates we sign at checkout? They force an even stranger signature! Would biometrics be better, or are we too distrustful of government for that? I sign into my healthcare facility with a palm reader. It's accurate, I'm sure, but could connect a lot of info if it is used widely.

Anonymous

The fact that signatures change with age doesn't just affect the elderly but also younger people. I first registered to vote when I was 17 and hadn't quite settled on my "adult" signature yet. Over 20 years on, I know it's changed.

Even so, despite being a permanent absentee voter in CA, it's never occurred to me before that my ballot could be disqualified based on some person's arbutrary opinion that the difference is too big. It's actually horrifying!

JG Horn

Watch any true crime show or the better police procedural shows such as NCIS or Law and Order and you will learn that an exact signature match is a sign of a counterfeit. In other words, the law actually requires a counterfeit signature. This, in itself should invalidate the law.
THe other issue is the qualification of the person invalidating the signature. I would bet that not a one is certified in any way as a trained handwriting expert.

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