What happens when ballots are rejected because signatures don’t match what’s on file

California mailed ballots to every registered voter this year because of the pandemic. Everyone must sign their ballot envelopes for their votes to be counted, and the signatures must be verified. 

But the verification system’s not perfect. Signatures can change over time, and maybe people sign in a hurry. So how accurate does a signature have to be?

Maya Lau and Laura Nelson have been investigating this for the LA Times.

Lau says verifying signatures is subjective. “In a lot of states, it's human beings who look at your signature. They compare it to an old signature you made maybe on your voter registration or your driver's license. And they're just eyeballing back and forth to see if those signatures look alike. And it's unclear in each case. They might judge it differently.”

Also, she says, some studies show that people who aren’t trained in forensic signature analysis are more likely to think that a genuine signature is fake — versus thinking a fake signature is real.

Nelson points out that in LA County, a computer checks each signature, while in much of the country, election workers exclusively do this task. These workers have widely varied amounts and quality of training. 

“If you think of the computer software as like a first pass on a signature, it depends on whether that jurisdiction wants it to only accept exact matches, if they want to add a little bit more leniency, like that can actually be changed,” says Nelson. 

People may also sign their names differently when they’re a teenager just getting their driver’s license, versus when they’re decades older. Nelson adds, “People who have physical disabilities or issues with fine motor skills, you’ve broken your hand — like there's all these different reasons for why your signature might look different.”

What happens if a signature is rejected? 

Lau says that in California, if a signature is mismatched, election officials must notify voters within 24 hours so they can rectify it. In other places like Pennsylvania, there's no law requiring that notification. And in Texas, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that officials don’t have to notify voters of a mismatch until after the election. 

“It really just depends on where you live, whether or not you'll get a chance to cure your ballot,” she says. 

Timing is a factor too, says Nelson. “If you live in a state where ballots are not processed and verified until the day before the election, or maybe even starting 7 a.m. on Election Day, there may be very little to no time for elections workers to notify you and to give you a chance to fix the problem.”

If someone forgets to sign their ballot envelope entirely, they must get notification of that too. 

An alternate system? 

With all the possibilities for errors, is there a better way for people to make their votes count without signing their ballot envelopes? 

Lau says many experts tell her that the system can work and be fair if voters are given enough time to rectify problems.

Nelson adds, “Also that the decision not be made by like a single election worker in an office somewhere, that signatures go through multiple layers of review.” 

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski