By Jessica Washington
Pennsylvania requires a signature for all mail-in ballots. The voter’s signature must match the voter’s permanent registration card. If the signature matches, the voter’s ballot is counted. If the signature does not match, the voter’s ballot is discarded.
Prior to this year, signatures for mail-in ballots have been an issue. They are poised to become an even greater problem as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic taking the world by storm. As a result of the pandemic, many people have begun to work from home, had their groceries delivered to their door, and have limited their need to go out in accordance with health guidelines. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people than ever are expected to vote through mail-in ballots. This increases the chance that more ballots than ever will be discounted as a result of rejected signatures.
In movies and television shows, you may see a computer system examine a signature and check off multiple points to confirm that the signature matches the one on record. For Pennsylvania, there is no high-tech system that checks signatures. In fact, there is no procedure set out to explain how workers verify signatures. It is possible that workers in different localities across the state use the naked eye and their own judgment to determine if a signature matches without any rule or training on how to verify the signature. The Election Code only creates a requirement for a signature and its verification without explaining what is required for the signature to be verified beyond needing the county board of elections to be “satisfied that the applicant is qualified to receive an official mail-in-ballot” through “verifying the proof of identification and comparing the information provided on the application with the information contained on the applicant’s permanent registration card.”
Many schools teach children how to write in cursive. Or at least, they used to. The problem is that no matter how well you wrote in your teacher’s fourth grade writing class, your handwriting has probably changed over time. You may have been an expert at cursive in elementary school, but now those skills have degraded because you barely use them. You may have expert penmanship when writing with your favorite pen, but using another pen might throw you off. Writing utensil, writing surface, stress, age, disability, education level, and other conditions can affect your writing.
This is part of the argument in League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, et al. v. Kathy Boockvar, et al. In this case, League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania (LWVPA) sought declaratory judgments saying that Pennsylvania’s existing signature verification process violated voters’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. They also sought a preliminary and permanent injunction to stop the state from using signature verification procedures that are not standard or to create a standard process for voter’s to be notified of an invalid signature and given the chance to correct it.
A major grievance for the LWVPA was that the state did not allow voters to cure a signature error. By the state not giving voters a pre-rejection notice that their ballots had signature issues and not giving voters a chance to fix the issue, the state rejected valid ballots cast by registered Pennsylvania voters. The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania withdrew their claim after the Secretary of the Commonwealth issued guidance (on September 11, 2020) to the County Board of Elections that “[t]he Pennsylvania Election Code does not authorize the county board of elections to set aside returned absentee or mail-in ballots based solely on signature analysis by the county board of elections.”
Although the issued guidance protects voter’s mail-in ballots from being rejected solely on signature issues for the upcoming November 2020 election, this seems like a band-aid on a gunshot wound. This guidance does not actually resolve the problem of having no standard procedure on how to verify signatures or training for workers to learn how to verify signatures. Of course, this may be the point of the guidance. Just delay the issue until after the election when there is more time to resolve it. Another outcome could be that the state leaves the current guidance and statute as is. A signature will be required under the statute, but mail-in ballots will no longer be discarded just for having a signature problem.
As of September 29, 2020, Pennsylvania still has not detailed a procedure for how to verify signatures. The State Department issued new guidance on September 28, 2020 which went into detail on the procedures for canvassing. Canvassing is required in the Pennsylvania Election Code. Through canvassing, county election boards review all ballotsto ensure their accuracy before the election is certified. Despite giving details on the pre-canvass and canvass procedures, this guidance only restates what was said in the previous guidance regarding signatures in that “[t]he Election Code does not permit county election officials to reject applications or voted ballots based solely on signature analysis” and that “[n]o challenges may be made to mail-in absentee ballots at any time based on signature analysis.”
The guidance issued goes further than what LWVPA asked for, which was just a procedure to give voters notice of and a chance to cure signature-related deficiencies to ensure valid ballots are counted and to discourage fraud or misconduct. Is there still a way for a signature to have an impact on the validity of a ballot without being the only reason for a ballot to be discarded? Will the language of the statute change to remove a signature as a requirement? The statute does make allowances for people who cannot sign to have a witness be present when they vote, but that removes privacy in voting. After all of this guidance, signatures are still required and will still be verified through a non-standard process. The only change is that a ballot cannot be discarded just for a signature issue. The signature is all but irrelevant for the certification of ballots. It will be interesting to see if the state makes any changes to their guidance or statute, or if they will let the signature requirement become dead language.