Fueled by concerns over the pandemic, as many as 80 million Americans are expected to cast their votes by mail in this year’s presidential election, more than double the number who did so in 2016. That surge has caused renewed interest in the way the majority of states verify the identities of mail-in voters — via their signatures.
In the process of “signature verification,” election officials compare a voter’s signature on a ballot’s security envelope with a past signature on file, often from the state department of motor vehicles or a voter registration form. However, the practice varies state by state and in some cases between counties.
Both Democrats and Republicans have raised concerns about the signature matching process, and the parties and activists have even filed lawsuits regarding the rules for verification and witnesses. Most of those suits have challenged the failure of election officials to notify voters of perceived mismatches or to provide them with opportunities to fix them.
President Donald Trump has voiced his concerns — unsupported by evidence — that signature verification practices create opportunities for fraud. “[In] Nevada, you don't have to verify the signature,” he told reporters at the White House in late September. “There's no verification. It is a disgrace that this can happen.”
Nevada does, in fact, require signature matching for mail ballots. Days later, FBI Director Chris Wray told Congress the FBI has not seen any “coordinated national voter fraud effort” by mail.
Democrats, meanwhile, are concerned that unmerited claims that signatures don’t match could be used by election officials to challenge or discard votes. To address this, the Democratic party and several voting rights groups have filed lawsuits in such battleground states as Michigan, Arizona, Ohio, and North Carolina to prompt election officials to change their policies.
Historically, signature mismatch has not been a leading reason for disqualifying ballots. In the 2016 presidential election, under 0.3 percent of mail ballots were discounted due to signature mismatch, for a total of just over 87,000 ballots nationwide, according to an NBC review of data from the Election Assistance Commission. In the 2018 midterm elections, just over 0.2 percent of mail ballots or around 64,000 votes were not counted because of signature mismatch.
Instead, election experts say the leading reason mail ballots are thrown out is that they were received after official deadlines.
Nate Persily, Stanford Law School professor and election law expert says, “We shouldn't overreact. There are not going to be millions of ballots that are discarded because of signature mismatches. But it is one of those ways that people can challenge a ballot as being illegal or being questionable.”
However, given the contentious nature of this year’s election, Persily says signature verification is something to watch. “Voters need to try as best they can to sign the ballot in the same way that they sign for their driver's license or their voter registration card, or historically even when they voted before. Because all of those signatures are then used to decide whether the signature that's actually on the ballot was the one of the voter that the county has on file.”
Persily co-launched the Stanford/MIT Healthy Elections Project, which recently published a report called “Behind the Scenes of Mail Voting: The Rules and Procedures of Signature Verification in the 2020 General Election.” The report points out that increased mail voting could lead to an increase in the associated risk that ballots will be rejected due to mismatch. It also says many states have been prompted to clarify their signature matching standards and extend opportunities for voters to fix discrepancies.
According to the report, at least 31 states and the District of Columbia require election officials to compare the signature on a mail ballot’s security envelope with a signature on file as part of their verification processes. Twelve others, including the swing states of North Carolina and Wisconsin, require voters to complete their ballots in front of a witness or a notary who must also sign.
A key differentiator is whether voters are given the chance to fix or “cure” their ballot should a discrepancy be identified. While some states have made exceptions for 2020, permanent laws in 18 states require local election officials to call, email or mail voters a notification as well as the opportunity to correct it, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.
One of those states, Arizona, has a five-business-day “cure” period for ballots with questionable signatures as of 2019. The state has been practicing high-volume mail-in voting for more than two decades.
In Maricopa County, home to the state’s largest voting population, signature matching is a three-step process. One of the largest single districts in the U.S. with more than 2.5 million registered voters, Maricopa is expecting to handle close to 2 million mail ballots this cycle.
“We're not concerned … we do our due diligence,” said Rey Valenzuela, elections director overseeing early voting and election services in Maricopa County.
All of Maricopa’s full-time election staffers take a signature verification training course led by Affiliated Forensic Laboratories, the same group that does signature training for the FBI. The three-tier signature process begins with an entry-level election official’s visual evaluation of whether the ballot envelope's signature is a 100 percent match with the voter’s signatures on file. If not, it’s flagged as an “exception” and proceeds to a team of two certified managers who must agree that it doesn’t match. If they agree that it doesn't, the voter is contacted and offered a chance to fix it. The third tier is a random audit for mismatches, with voters notified and given the opportunity to resolve them.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Valenzuela, pointing to Arizona’s 2018 election. Just over 300 of 1.2 million ballots cast were not counted because of signature mismatch. The majority of those nullifications were because a voter did not respond in time to a request to fix or “cure” a signature problem.
Across the country in Pennsylvania, one of 2020’s most highly contested states, the rules around signature verification are changing.
“The sooner we know exactly what we can do and not do, the better off voters are,” said Al Schmidt, the only Republican elections commissioner in Philadelphia.
In mid-September, Pennsylvania’s Democratic secretary of state, Kathy Boockvar, issued guidance that signature verification issues alone are not a sufficient reason to nullify a ballot. On Oct. 4, Boockvar asked the state’s Supreme Court for a definitive judgment and on Wednesday court agreed to provide one.
As election officials wait for the state Supreme Court’s judgment, a federal judge for the state’s western district court has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the president’s reelection campaign alleging in part that the secretary’s guidance on signature matching was unconstitutional.
The state’s Democratic attorney general, Josh Shapiro, says the rules around signature verification are clear. “If their signatures don't precisely match, you can't throw away the ballot. You can't disenfranchise legal, eligible voters. Some counties didn't want to follow that, and so the secretary of state has asked our [state] Supreme Court to step in and just provide that clarification.”
That means Pennsylvania is likely on its way to joining Wisconsin and North Carolina as battleground states where laws do not require election officials to compare voters’ signatures.
Pennsylvania does not have a long history of mail-in voting. The state passed a “no-excuse” vote by mail system in 2019 — meaning voters can opt to vote by mail without providing a reason or “excuse” to officials. Schmidt says while Philadelphia would usually receive between 10,000 to 20,000 absentee ballots during a presidential election, upwards of 300,000 are expected this cycle.
“We have no choice but to be ready for this election, Schmidt said.
Schmidt points to several checks built into Pennsylvania's verification system including the requirement of a driver’s license number or the last four digits of their social security number upon applying for an absentee ballot. Pennsylvania’s mail ballot envelopes also include unique barcodes used to help notify voters of their ballots’ status.
With Election Day quickly approaching, election officials worry in spite of their efforts, irreparable damage has been done. A recent NBC News/WSJ poll shows more than 50 percent of voters nationally are not confident their mail ballots will be counted accurately.
Schmidt said, “My overall biggest concern is that confidence in our electoral system, not just in Philadelphia, not just in Pennsylvania, but across the country, seems to be under siege at the moment.”