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Two days after the polls closed in Florida, lawyers for incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and the Florida Democratic Party filed a lawsuit to try to get the state to count as valid some 5,600 votes that had been declared invalid because of a signature mismatch. And while Senator Nelson ultimately lost to Republican Gov. Rick Scott by more than 10,000 votes, the lawsuit over signature mismatches on Florida ballots is continuing. The litigation is seen by many analysts as an attempt to shape the electoral landscape in the nation’s most important swing state in advance of the 2020 election. At issue is whether Florida’s system of disqualifying ballot signatures varies so greatly from one county to another that it violates the Constitution’s requirement of equal protection and equal treatment. In addition, the court is poised to examine whether Florida allows voters with disputed signatures enough time to address the discrepancy. “Some counties were doing more outreach to voters and others weren’t,” says Amber McReynolds, executive director of the National Vote at Home Institute. “That is the kind of inconsistency you don’t want to see in a statewide race.”
When Grace Hidalgo went to the polls in Florida’s Broward County on Election Day, everything seemed routine.
“I was basically in and out,” she says. “I was thinking my vote went through.”
She was wrong. At the very end of the voting process, instead of feeding her ballot into an electronic tabulator at her precinct, an election official placed her ballot in an envelope and asked her to sign her name across the sealed flap.
Ms. Hidalgo didn’t know it at the time, but that little bit of hasty penmanship would end up disqualifying her vote.
“If I had known, I would have made sure it looked like my driver’s license signature,” she says. “I’m shocked that it is all because of a signature that my vote didn’t count.”
Hidalgo was one of 5,686 Florida voters who cast ballots in the state’s hotly-contested 2018 midterm elections only to have their votes declared invalid because of a signature mismatch.
Although it was only a tiny fraction of the 8.2 million votes cast in Florida on Nov. 6, lawyers for incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and the Florida Democratic Party filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge in Tallahassee to order the state to count each of the 5,686 votes as valid ballots.
The lawsuit came two days after the polls closed, but at a time when Senator Nelson appeared to be closing a razor-thin gap with his Republican challenger, Gov. Rick Scott. The hope was that if the judge declared Florida’s signature verification system unconstitutional, Nelson would reap the lion’s share of those 5,600 invalidated and uncounted votes.
It didn’t happen. Instead, US District Judge Mark Walker ordered state election officials to extend the deadline to allow voters with a signature mismatch more time to “cure” their disputed ballots.
In the end, Nelson did not overtake Scott, who won the US Senate seat by more than 10,000 votes. Nonetheless, the lawsuit over signature mismatches on Florida ballots is continuing.
The litigation is seen by many analysts as an attempt to shape the electoral landscape in the most important swing state in the country in advance of the 2020 election.
At issue in the court battle is whether Florida’s system of disqualifying ballot signatures varies so greatly from one county to another that it violates the Constitution’s requirement of equal protection and equal treatment. In addition, the court is poised to examine whether Florida allows voters with disputed signatures enough time to address the discrepancy so their votes will count.
A subjective process
Deciding whether a signature is a close enough match to an on-file voter registration signature can involve a large number of subjective variables that might differ significantly from county to county.
It is a problem that starts with the voters themselves and penmanship.
“We know that people scratch out a signature at the grocery store and that may be very different from how they sign an official document, or how they signed their driver’s license, or how they sign their mail ballot,” says Amber McReynolds, executive director of the National Vote at Home Institute.
It’s not just sloppy handwriting. Some voters have had their signatures rejected because they were too careful, too precise in how they signed their vote-by-mail ballots, she says.
All 50 states allow some form of absentee voting. Twenty states require an excuse to obtain an absentee ballot, while 27 states allow any qualified voter to cast an absentee ballot upon request, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Three states – Oregon, Washington, and Colorado – conduct their elections through mail-in ballots. Several other states are expanding their use of mail-in voting, which means that more officials across the country are grappling with the signature-match question.
Here in Broward County, when election officials can’t match a particular ballot signature, the disputed scrawl is sent to the county’s three-member canvassing board to make a final determination.
Members of the board receive no special training and are not permitted to consult with a handwriting expert.
“The law says that this is a determination that can be made by a layperson,” says County Judge Betsy Benson, chair of the Broward County Canvassing Board. “You take your time and you look as closely as you can, and if the majority of the board believes it is a valid signature, it is a valid signature,” she says.
More than 714,000 votes were cast in Broward County during the 2018 midterm elections. Of those, roughly 189,000 were vote-by-mail ballots.
There are three categories of ballots in Florida that involve signature-match issues: so-called absentee ballots; ballots delivered from voters overseas; and provisional ballots.
In the 2016 presidential election, Broward County received 205,174 votes requiring a potential signature match. Of those, 128 ballots were deemed invalid because of a perceived signature mismatch. That is a .06 percent rejection rate.
Ms. McReynolds served as director of elections in Denver prior to joining the Vote at Home Institute. She says based on her experience in Colorado, a rejection rate lower than one percent is viewed as acceptable.
In 2016, the statewide signature rejection rate in Florida was .23 percent – less than one-quarter of one percent, according to a Monitor analysis of data compiled by the federal Election Assistance Commission.
Susan Pynchon is chair of the Florida Fair Elections Coalition, based in Volusia County. She says it is essential that members of a county canvassing board examining signature mismatches embrace a permissive posture in which they err on the side of the voter.
“I have a wonderful video of our canvassing board looking at signatures. The care they put into it is just extraordinary,” she says. “They look for every reason to accept that vote. You can hear them say, ‘See that curlicue on the J,’ ” she says.
‘A lot of inconsistency’
Ms. Pynchon says the problem in Florida is that the state’s deadlines to certify election results fall too quickly after the election. She says that many of the signature mismatches might be cleared up by the voters themselves if they were given more time after the election to do so.
In his decision extending the deadline for certain voters to cure their mismatched signatures, Judge Walker suggested that Florida might consider adopting a provision embraced by Oregon, which allows voters two weeks after every election to cure any signature discrepancy. McReynolds says that in Colorado, voters are given up to eight days after the election to cure a signature discrepancy. In California, the period is 10 days.
“A good process is the key to this,” McReynolds says.
Ballot scrutiny is important. Discovering a mismatched signature can lead to a fraud investigation if a voter reports back that he or she did not cast a ballot. That information can be turned over to authorities for investigation.
But the process also has to be fair to the voter and reasonably consistent across the state, McReynolds adds.
“There is a lot of inconsistency county by county in Florida in terms of how that is administered,” she says. “Some counties were doing more outreach to voters and others weren’t. That is the kind of inconsistency you don’t want to see in a statewide race.”
In Colorado, officials in larger counties use a software program that helps match the ballot signature to a database of signatures from each voter. The remaining unresolved signatures are turned over to bipartisan teams that compare the ballot signature to other signatures on file with the state. “We might have 20 to 30 different signatures on file for a voter over time,” McReynolds says.
The other key to an effective signature match program is to provide immediate notification to a voter with a signature mismatch and a convenient method for that voter to cure the ballot.
In Colorado, voters are given a choice to return an affidavit with a copy of their ID via text, email, fax, or they can drop it off in person at any vote center.
Voters also share some responsibility, experts say.
“People should check their signature. If they really want to vote by mail, they need to have a consistent signature and they need to know what their signature on file at the supervisor of elections office looks like,” Pynchon says.
Signatures can change over time. And many younger voters are comfortable using a keyboard but lack a consistent handwriting style. “One of my friend’s sons is like that,” she says. “He can never vote by mail because his signature never looks the same.”
Ms. Hidalgo agrees that penmanship and an evolving signature style were a big part of her Election Day problem.
She believes that election officials converted her ballot into a provisional ballot because of a communications foul up in her precinct at the time she arrived to vote. Election officials were unable to immediately check to verify she was a registered voter so they made her ballot into a provisional ballot.
Despite this action, Hidalgo says she was never notified that there was a problem with her signature, and was never told how she could correct the signature mismatch. By the time she learned of the signature problem, the time to cure her ballot had passed. She was effectively disenfranchised.