Signature Mismatching Could Prevent Legitimate Votes From Being Counted
No matter how you vote in Ohio, you must include your John Hancock before you cast your ballot. Your signature is then matched with other versions on file at the board of elections to verify that it is indeed you.
Supporters say the signature matching prevents fraud. But voting rights advocates say it’s more likely to stop legitimate votes from being counted, especially when it comes to mail-in ballots.
George Mangeni of Franklin County voted by mail-in, absentee ballot for the first time in the spring primary. It wasn’t until after the election that he found out his vote never counted.
When asked whether he feels confident about absentee voting after his experience, he replied, "Not at all."
He plans to vote in-person on Election Day so that if his signature is challenged this time, he can address it on the spot.
He notes that boards of elections workers are not professionally trained handwriting analysts.
"Your signature changes so you can’t expect someone in 30 seconds to match the signature,” he said.
A lack of information
Mangeni learned from the ACLU of Ohio that his primary ballot had been rejected. The civil liberties group was researching a lawsuit to stop the state from requiring signature matching until the process can be improved, and Mangeni was among the more than 200 names they discovered. He says that the Franklin County Board of Elections never contacted him, as required by Ohio law, to resolve the issue.
The board has not responded to questions about the case. The secretary of state’s office says that problem signatures are reviewed by a bipartisan team and that historically the number of ballots disqualified due to mismatching signatures is low, numbering 332 out of almost 2 million absentee ballots cast in the 2016 presidential election. However, in this pandemic year, the legal director of the ACLU of Ohio, says the number of absentee ballots is much larger.
“Something like 8 percent of Ohioans voted by mail in the 2016 election. I mean that could be 10 times as many now," said Freda Levenson of the ACLU of Ohio.
Levenson says a political science professor who extensively studied the issue found a 97 percent chance that ballots that are rejected because of mismatched signatures are actually from valid voters.
“The reason we’re suing is to reform the process so that the voter has more of an opportunity to challenge when the BOE mistakenly says this isn’t you," she said.
The ACLU asked a federal judge to allow more time for elections boards to contact a voter and for that voter to respond. The judge acknowledged the process is burdensome but said changing it close to an election could be damaging.
Signature matching training
The Stark County Board of Elections trains workers to ensure ballot signatures have some comparable mark with the signatures it has on file, but to stay flexible. Administrative Assistant Travis Secrest says that errors are very obvious.
“As long as they are not printing or having other people sign, then they should have nothing to worry about,” he said.
Secrest adds that variations in a name—Mike Smith instead of Michael Smith, for example—is no problem when it comes to signatures.
However, Jen Miller, the executive director of the Ohio League of Women Voters, says there is no real consistency among the 88 county boards of elections.
“It is very subjective, and we are asking our very hardworking boards of elections to try to guess whether someone’s signature matches or not," Miller said. "So you can ask one board of elections how they train someone but that doesn’t mean that’s how another board of elections does it.”
What voters can do to protect themselves
But voters can take some steps to protect themselves. Aaron Ockerman, the director of the Ohio Elections Officials Association, advises voters to let their elections boards know if their signature has changed, especially as a result of health issues such as a stroke.
“Send us your ballot and a note saying, ‘My signature has changed. Here’s my new signature,’ and we can call you and validate all of that,” Ockerman said.
No matter what, time to resolve signature mismatching is critical. If there is a problem, boards of elections will now contact you faster by email or phone, in addition to regular mail, so make sure to include your entire contact information on your application and ballot. Challenged voters must complete a form that has to be received by their board of elections within 10 days of Election Day, Nov. 3.
So all sides agree that waiting until the Oct. 31 deadline to request an absentee ballot risks running out of time.