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How does D.C. verify a signature on a ballot? Here’s how it works.

A D.C. mailed ballot showing the signature line where voters are required to sign. Those signatures are then checked against other signatures that the D.C. government has on file. (The Washington Post)
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More than 60,000 ballots have already been mailed to the D.C. Board of Elections or left in a secure drop box. Before they can be counted, each must be inspected for a valid signature.

It’s a multitiered safeguard that will be used more than ever before in this election, with the District sending ballots to all voters and unprecedented numbers expected to mail them in or drop them off because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Signature matching, intended to confirm the identities of voters who do not vote in person, is a technique employed in the District and 32 states.

After the D.C. elections board receives a signed and completed ballot, the signature is paired electronically with one on file. (Generally, it’s the signature on your D.C. driver’s license or voter registration form.) A staff member then checks to see whether the signatures match. If there’s a discrepancy, the ballot is sent to a manager for a second inspection.

If the manager confirms the discrepancy, the board will contact the voter to correct the problem before Nov. 13, the latest date the board can accept a mail ballot that was postmarked by Election Day.

Heightened attention to the process during this year’s polarized presidential election — fueled by the emphasis on mail-in voting and attacks on such ballots by President Trump and his allies has caused some D.C. residents to worry about how their signature has changed over time and whether their ballot could be rejected.

Carolinn Kuebler, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Van Ness whose constituency includes many seniors, said she has fielded questions from voters who registered for the first time 40 or 50 years ago.

“Given how fraught this election is, they’re very, very concerned their votes won’t count,” Kuebler said. “There are so many people voting remotely — now there’s this lingering concern [the elections board] will see their signature and toss the ballot.”

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The elections board does not offer a way for voters to check the signature they have on file. But board spokesman Nick Jacobs said officials account for changes by collecting signatures from multiple sources, including the Department of Motor Vehicles, signed petitions and poll books from previous elections.

“We’re able to see the alterations in signatures. We get that, as people age, signatures change, so that’s why we use those multiple sources,” Jacobs said. “For the concerns some people have raised — my middle initial is included here, and not there — we account for all those possibilities.”

Neither Maryland nor Virginia use signature matching to verify voter identity. Ballots in these states are rejected if the voter forgets to sign altogether.

D.C. election officials say about 1 percent of the 76,000 mail-in ballots submitted during the city’s June primary election were rejected — mostly for issues with voters’ signatures.

A “very tiny number” of ballots cast so far in the general election have been flagged for signature issues, Jacobs said. The board has already started contacting these voters to fix, or “cure,” any problems.

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South Dakota, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee are the only states that verify ballot signatures but do not have a policy for curing signatures, according to the New York Times.

“Most of them match. We don’t want people fretting over that unnecessarily,” said Alice Miller, executive director of the D.C. Board of Elections. “But we have to do something to verify if it’s the voter.”

Concerns about signatures have spiked this year, in part, election officials say, because the city is sending out so many more mailed ballots than usual. Reports on social media that some D.C. voters were mailed multiple ballots, often belonging to former or deceased residents, added to voter suspicions and questions.

Jacobs said the elections board has received dozens of complaints about ballots that were sent to the wrong address and is advising voters to return these ballots to the elections office so officials can update their records. (Just mark the envelope “return to sender” and leave it in your mailbox.)

“In terms of people getting multiple ballots, it’s been the most prevalent issue voters have commented on,” Jacobs said. “Keep in mind, D.C. is one of the most transient cities on the face of the planet. There are a lot of people moving in and out, and people forget to update their voter registration.”

D.C. updates its voter rolls by checking death records and, after each general election, contacting people who didn’t vote to ask if they still live at the address on file. But many people don’t fill out and return these canvass cards, even after multiple attempts to reach them, Miller said. And city regulations say the District cannot remove a living but inactive voter from its rolls until that person has failed to vote in at least three consecutive general elections.

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The D.C. Board of Elections is also a member of the Electronic Registration Information Center, a coalition of 30 states and federal enclaves that share voter registration data.

Marc Meredith, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, said the number of people moving in and out of the District presents it with more challenges than many states. If the city continues to increase its use of mail voting, he said, it may have to devise new policies to help keep up with where those ballots should be sent.

But Meredith called voters receiving multiple ballots an exception to the rule and said that, even then, people are unlikely to use a ballot intended for someone else to commit fraud. He also pointed to safeguards, such as signature matching, as effective deterrents.

“We know from political science research the rates of voter fraud, whether it be mailed ballots or at a polling place, is extremely low,” he said. “There just isn’t evidence people use opportunities that arise to commit voter fraud in the rare instances where they come up.”

D.C. voters can track the location of their mailed or dropped-off ballot using a new online tool (votedc.ballottrax.net/voter) that also indicates if there are any problems. Voters will hear directly from an election official if there is an issue with their ballot or signature, Jacobs said.

“We’ll move as fast as possible to reach out to voters if there’s a signature issue and get it fixed,” he added. “We’ll make multiple opportunities to the voter to have their ballot counted.”

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