The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Does your vote count in Florida? It might depend on your signature.

Canvassing board member Irwin Jacobowitz, left, Judge August Bonavita, center, and Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, right, review ballots at the Elections Service Center in Riviera Beach Thursday.
Canvassing board member Irwin Jacobowitz, left, Judge August Bonavita, center, and Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, right, review ballots at the Elections Service Center in Riviera Beach Thursday. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post)
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It’s the hanging chad of 2018: the mismatched signature.

Eighteen years ago, the last time the nation watched a recount unfold, election officials studied bits of paper dangling from punched ballots to glean voter intent — and to determine whether George W. Bush or Al Gore would be the next president.

This year, they are studying how voters loop their Hs.

A federal judge in Tallahassee heard arguments Wednesday about whether election officials may toss 4,000 ballots with signatures that don’t match existing voter records. The suit was brought by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is hoping to overtake Republican Gov. Rick Scott in a statewide recount. It is one of many lawsuits flying in state and federal court in the closely watched Senate race, which remains unresolved more than a week after Election Day.

Voter signatures have taken on outsize importance because they are typically required on absentee and mail-in ballots, which more and more Americans are using to vote. As Republicans and Democrats spar over which ballots should count in unresolved elections in Florida and Georgia, many of their disputes have centered on whether to accept ballots where the signature doesn’t match.

The issue is acute in close races where absentee ballots could sway the outcome — and in states where voting by mail has exploded without a standardized system for checking the validity of a signature, the most common way to verify that a mail-in ballot is legal.

All of it has created an uproar among voting-rights advocates, who say that untrained election workers are tossing eligible ballots, often with no chance for the voter to object or fix the ballot.

“I had zero recourse here,” said Patrick Murphy, a former Democratic congressman from Palm Beach who learned after the election that his absentee ballot had been rejected because of a mismatched signature — too late for him to do anything about it.

Murphy, 35, said he’s had the same signature since he got his driver’s license at 16, so he thinks it’s ridiculous that his ballot was tossed. “In elections, especially in Florida, that are within .5 percent or .25 percent, to have nonexperts be deciding this, seems a little silly to me,” he said.

The issue is increasingly the subject of litigation elsewhere, too. In a Georgia case similar to the one heard Wednesday in Florida, a federal judge ordered officials to stop summarily tossing absentee ballots without giving voters a chance to fix them. Georgia election officials are still counting provisional and absentee ballots in a contentious governor’s race in which Democrat Stacey Abrams is hoping to force a runoff against Republican Brian Kemp.

Opinions on the issue are divided starkly along partisan lines, with Democrats arguing for more recourse for voters and Republicans defending strict laws to guard against voter fraud.

“The signature requirement is a good requirement,” said Republican Carlos A. Giménez, mayor of Miami-Dade, Florida’s largest jurisdiction with about 1.4 million registered voters. He said people known as “ballot runners” have improperly filled out ballots belonging to the elderly with their own choice.

“That’s a very useful law,” he said.

Democrats noted that most rejected ballots come from communities of color, which tend to vote Democratic. They say that is why Republicans favor strict signature laws despite no widespread evidence of voter fraud. Kemp, for instance, fought the court decision in Georgia.

“They are not effective anti-fraud measures,” said Democratic lawyer Marc Elias, who is leading some of the litigation in Florida this week. “They are disenfranchisement measures. There is nothing in the Constitution that qualifies the right to vote with a consistent signature.”

In Florida’s Palm Beach County, attorney Bill Abramson described a painstaking process in which election officials, known as the canvassing board, sit at a table, surrounded by lawyers and party representatives, and study each ballot one at a time, trying to reach consensus about whether each one is valid.

“If you do this for a while, it’s not that hard,” said Abramson, who was there to monitor vote-counting in Palm Beach County on behalf of his friend, Democrat Jim Bonfiglio, whose race for the Florida State House is the closest in the state, with a margin of just 37 votes. “You don’t need an expert to say ‘that one’s not even close.’ You look for consistencies, the way people hook their H on the left side, that sort of thing. And you compare them.”

Abramson lauded the board’s work and said he objected to only four decisions out of 1,800 ballots. One rejected provisional ballot he thought should have gone through was from an 87-year-old woman who had tried to vote in person.

“She didn’t have her picture ID, so they asked for her signature, and the signature she had on file was God knows how old, so they said it didn’t match,” Abramson said. “I thought they looked really close. I mean, look, she’s 87, her writing is going to change. My signature has been on file since 1992, and it looks nothing like that today.”

'It's a balancing act'

Thirty-six states mandate signature matching on absentee or mail-in ballots, according to Gerry Langeler of the National Vote at Home Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates for mail-in voting and encourages standardized systems to assess ballot signatures.

Most states have had these requirements for years. The attention on the issue this year is less a function of new laws than the explosion in mail-in voting, notably among older and disabled voters who struggle to vote in person.

In 2010, 20 percent of all ballots were mailed, Langeler said, and the figure has been growing steadily since; this year, the figure will be at least 28 percent.

Nowhere in U.S. society are signatures subject to the scrutiny they receive in elections. Signatures are essential on checks, mortgage documents and credit card receipts — but it doesn’t really matter how they look.

They often look pretty bad. No one objects when shoppers leave an illegible squiggle on an electronic keypad to pick up groceries or a prescription. And penmanship has become markedly worse among younger Americans, who spend far more time texting than writing in cursive. Some schools don’t even teach it anymore.

People’s signatures also evolve over time, and disabilities can make it difficult for voters to write at all.

Depending on the state, voter signatures are compared to records from ballot applications, registration forms and even sometimes to a years-old driver’s license — a signature often absent-mindedly scrawled onto an electronic keypad.

That creates the risk that legal votes will be disqualified, advocates say.

“Election officials need to be very careful when they decide to reject absentee ballots for such small issues,” said John Powers, an attorney with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which helped litigate the signature suit in Georgia. “And if they do, they should make some effort to contact the voter and verify the voter’s identity to see if the issue can be resolved before the election.”

Election officials say signature matching is essential to verify the identity of a voter who sends in a ballot by mail. Done right, it can result in minimal rejections, Langeler said. Colorado, for instance, requires all voters to vote by mail — and requires a two-person, bipartisan team of trained judges to examine every signature rejected by an initial computer scan. They also use several signatures from various records to compare with the ballot.

“Your goal is trying to make sure it’s not a fraudulent ballot, like from somebody in the household of an elderly or disabled person,” said Janine Eveler, director of elections in Cobb County, Ga., where officials had to scour signatures on more than 25,000 mail-in ballots this year. “But if it’s truly their vote, you want to count that. It’s a balancing act.”

In Cobb, Eveler has trained her staff to look for similarities in the handwriting on the voter’s registration application as well as the signature stored in the state’s computer system. She believes in giving the benefit of the doubt to the voter, she said — but that’s her judgment, not a statewide standard. Ultimately, just 23 ballots were rejected because of a mismatched signature in Cobb, not enough to sway the outcome of any election this year.

It was a different story in neighboring and only slightly larger Gwinnett County, Ga., which rejected hundreds of applications for absentee ballots, which also require a matching signature. That makes the law unfair, advocates said, because voters are treated differently depending on where they live. Judges have agreed in cases in Georgia and New Hampshire.

There is also the risk of intentional voter suppression, advocates said. Gwinnett has a large minority population, and the majority of absentee-ballot applications rejected in Georgia came from voters of color. Some advocates expressed concern that the computer record that local election officials use to match the ballot signature with the registration also shows a voter’s race — leaving open the possibility of discrimination.

A Gwinnett County spokesman declined to comment on the issue, citing pending litigation. “But what I will tell you is that we have been following the law, and when we have received direction from the courts, we have followed that,” said spokesman Joe Sorenson. “And that’s what we will continue to do.”

In New Hampshire, Maureen Heard says she knows exactly why her ballot was rejected — because she had quickly scrawled her signature on her ballot application, and then more carefully signed the ballot itself.

She was frustrated that she never got a chance to fix the problem and gladly signed onto a lawsuit from the ACLU.

“I didn’t find out until months later,” she said, “when the ACLU called me, that my ballot had been invalidated because the signature that I had on the envelope was kind of different than the one that I had tossed off when I was asking for the ballot.”

Lori Rozsa in Riviera Beach, Fla., Sean Sullivan in Tallahassee and Beth Reinhard in Lauderhill, Fla., contributed to this report.