Disqualified ballots could make a difference in the outcome of close elections

Marissa Reyes still doesn’t understand why her signature would cause her August 2020 Benton County primary ballot to be tossed out. 

A letter from the county elections office challenging her signature came to her house in her hometown of Prosser. But Reyes had left for New York, where she had just finished college. Confused, neither Reyes nor her parents had the time to figure it all out before her ballot was rejected.

“I definitely felt annoyed and a little apathetic, but definitely not surprised,” Reyes recalled.

Fast-forward to November 2020, when the ballots of nearly 24,000 registered Washington voters were not counted because officials judged their ballot signatures to not match the signature on file, which is often the signature from their driver’s license.

And in the eight Washington counties with the largest share of potential Latino voters, Hispanic-sounding names, like Reyes, are nearly four times more likely than other voters to have their ballot rejected for a signature mismatch, according to an InvestigateWest analysis of four recent elections.

The curiously high rate of disenfranchisement among Latino voters could mean altered election outcomes.

A woman stands in the middle of a street, wearing a winter jacket and looking at the camera.

Marissa Reyes’ signature on her ballot was challenged in August 2020 after she left her hometown of Prosser in Benton County to return to New York, where she had been in college. Although elections officials sent her a letter to notify her, she and her parents weren’t able to figure out how to take steps to fix the problem before the elections office certified the election results, so her ballot was not counted. In Washington counties with the highest proportions of Latino voters, people Voters like Reyes with Latino-sounding last names are four times more likely to have their ballots rejected because of a signature challenge. (Dan DeLong/InvestigateWest)

Experts and voters themselves have suggested a variety of explanations for signature rejections among Latino voters, including language barriers, education levels and implicit bias. An implicit bias is an unconscious association, belief or attitude toward any social group. Due to implicit biases, people may often attribute certain qualities or characteristics to all members of a particular group, a phenomenon known as stereotyping. Implicit biases operate almost entirely on an unconscious level. While explicit biases and prejudices are intentional and controllable, implicit biases are less so. (Source: verywellmind.com)”

“I’m not surprised that Latin-American sounding names are thrown by the wayside,” Reyes said about InvestigateWest’s analysis. She doesn’t believe her signature should be suspect. Like other kids in her Benton County school, she said, she learned cursive long ago, and her parents even helped her practice at home.

Reyes was born and raised in Prosser. She called the culture there racist and xenophobic. On Cinco de Mayo, a celebrated day of Mexican-American culture, she remembers people driving around town in trucks with Confederate flags. Some of the kids who grow up there go on to work in local schools and government, she said.

“There needs to be more accountability so that these biases don’t permeate our building blocks of democracy,” Reyes said. 

Multiple Washington county elections staff and officials said the signatures that go through several reviews and remain challenged are obviously mismatched. Still, county canvassing boards sometimes decide to accept a few of those ballots from the challenged signature pile, they told InvestigateWest.

Rejected ballots can change election results

These findings are based on InvestigateWest’s analysis of state and federal data, in addition to responses to more than 40 public records requests to two state agencies and eight counties, covering 11 million votes cast over four high-turnout elections in 2019 and 2020. InvestigateWest also conducted more than 50 interviews with voters, auditors, lawyers, community leaders, elections researchers and other experts, in addition to in-person observation of county elections officials reviewing voter signatures.

[Read more: How InvestigateWest analyzed voter signature rejection rates]

The analysis covers eight counties in Central and Eastern Washington with the highest share of Hispanic or Latino voters, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — Adams, Benton, Chelan, Douglas, Franklin, Grant, Walla Walla and Yakima counties.

According to a consent decree in a lawsuit brought under the federal Voting Rights Act in Yakima County, the Washington Secretary of State matches Yakima voter last names to a “Spanish surname” list provided by the U.S. Justice Department in 2004. InvestigateWest also used this list to analyze signature rejections.

Latinos make up 37% of the total population in these eight counties, and 21% of the voting population. White, non-Hispanic voters make up most of the remaining voting population in these counties. While the eight counties account for 10% of the statewide voting population, they account for 29% of the Latino voting population in Washington.

A heat map of the estimated Latino share of voters in Washington state.Latino voters had a 1% signature rejection rate in the November 2020 election, four times the rate of other voters. Another way to look at it: In these eight counties, Latino voters contributed 17% of accepted ballots in November 2020, but 46% of ballot rejections. Statewide, Latino voters made up more than 5% of accepted ballots.

The rate at which Latino voters’ ballots are challenged is also higher than other voters. They fix, or “cure,” their signatures at lower rates than other voters, as well, InvestigateWest’s data analysis reveals. 

Workers at county elections offices do much of the work in signature verification and outreach to voters with challenged ballots. The final stop is the county canvassing board, where officials reject — or occasionally accept — a ballot. (See accompanying story below explaining the process in more detail.)

As with other research on ballot rejections, these numbers cannot directly measure if or how bias plays a role in signature mismatches or the process to cure it.  But research on handwriting comparison suggests room for human error.

“We’ve seen evidence throughout the country that people of color and young voters have their ballots disproportionately rejected. And that’s a huge issue because it’s your voice and you have the right to vote and have that vote counted,” said Breanne Schuster, attorney with ACLU of Washington.

These signature mismatches may decide elections. In 2004, Washington experienced the closest and most bitterly contested statewide election in its history. Democrat Christine Gregoire won the gubernatorial race by fewer than 200 votes out of 2.8 million cast.

And in at least three recent examples InvestigateWest examined, signature rejections added up to more than the margin between two candidates:

  • The Wapato mayoral election of 2017 brought community members and lawyers to the public meetings where Yakima County Canvassing Board members scrutinized signatures. In the end, the Board rejected 21 signatures from Wapato, and Juan Orozco won by four votes.
  • In another Yakima County race in November 2019, Mike Farmer won Sunnyside City Council Position 5 by just one vote. The Yakima board rejected four signatures from those precincts.
  • And in November 2020, State Senator Mark Mullet, 5th Legislative District in King County, kept his seat by a margin of 58 votes. The nearly 400 mismatch rejections in the district far exceeded that margin.

“In states that use signature matches, there are going to be some serious questions about reliability and its disproportionate effects on minority communities,” said David Morales, former vice chair of the Washington Commission on Hispanic Affairs, who observed the 2017 Wapato election signature-scrutinizing proceedings. “It’s worth asking the question of how scientifically valid are the systems we use? If someone challenged this as a valid methodology, I wonder if it would be struck down by the court.”

What’s in a name?

Most ballot rejections in Washington fall into three groups: late ballots, missing signatures and mismatched signatures. Only a signature mismatch is based on judgment, rather than a missing signature or a late postmark. Some other states use machines in the signature matching process. 

Elections staff identify a signature for a possible mismatch when at least half of the voter’s name and writing do not match a signature on file. A “signature challenge” then indicates a serious discrepancy in either both parts of the name or the actual handwriting.

The reason voters’ legitimate signatures lead to a challenge, and then in about half the cases, a rejection, is complicated. Sometimes they sign sloppily out on their car’s dashboard or their knee, before putting the ballot in a drop box. Sometimes they ask a household member to sign it for them, not realizing that the match is important, said Chelan County Auditor Skip Moore.

Franklin County election officials challenged Daniella Esparza’s signature for the first time in November, after about eight years of voting with her married name. Feeling that this was a “life-changing” election, she emailed the elections office to get the signature update form and fixed it. 

Like Reyes, she wasn’t surprised to learn there is a higher rate of signature rejections for Latino surnames. Esparza guessed that in Franklin County, people might assume Democrat voting preferences based on a Latino name.

She admitted that her signature did evolve right after she got married in 2012, so she wondered why it was contested in this particular election in 2020. “I’ve voted plenty of times since it changed, and it was never mismatched before. That’s what makes me feel it was my party, the importance of this election,” Esparza said.

[Read more: Can elections procedure be altered to make sure all voters are treated equally?]

A woman stands on a hill, looking off-camera.

Daniella Esparza came close to having her November 2020 ballot rejected because of a supposed mismatch of her signature on file at the elections office and the way she signed the ballot. She says her signature has changed over the years, but wonders why this particular ballot drew a challenge. Fortunately, when Franklin County elections officials contacted her, she was able to fix the problem and get her vote counted. (Dan DeLong/InvestigateWest)

The eight counties examined by InvestigateWest are dominated by Republican voters and white voters. For example, in the recent November 2020 general election, on average, 57% of voters supported President Trump, and 61% supported Republican gubernatorial challenger Loren Culp. The counties range from a high of 71% for Culp in Adams to a low of 57% in Yakima.

In these counties, Republicans also fill all or the majority of the three elected official slots on the county canvassing boards. But because these officials can designate someone else for each election, the public doesn’t always have ready access to the list of actual board members or their political party affiliation for each election.

Some of these counties and major cities within them have been under pressure to expand city council and county commission representation for Latino residents by actual and threatened lawsuits under the federal Voting Rights Act and the newly enacted Washington version of that law.

The Yakima City Council was required to move from at-large to district elections after a 2014 court ruling. Pasco did this because of a lawsuit in 2016. Wenatchee acted preemptively, adopting city council district elections in 2018.

Yakima County is being sued under state law over the county commissioner electoral system. It is under threat of a similar lawsuit under federal law. Similar to Yakima, Franklin County has been sent a notice letter challenging its county commission electoral system under the Washington state Voting Rights Act and the state constitution.

Officials from Franklin County did not respond to requests for comment on the mismatch disparities. Following the advice of their prosecuting attorney, Yakima County officials declined to comment on the disparities.

This disparity for Latino voters is not limited to Central and Eastern Washington. InvestigateWest contacted nine county auditor offices that administer elections. Only King County responded that it had done some preliminary internal data analysis of something similar in past elections.

King County offers ballots in Chinese, English, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese. For ballots that were rejected for all reasons except being too late, Spanish-language ballots had the highest rejection rate among the five languages.

A bar chart of how many times higher the signature rejection rate is for Latino voters compared to other voters.Immigrants could also face language and cultural barriers in the voting and curing processes. Only in Adams, Franklin and Yakima counties are voting materials required to be in Spanish. These counties are covered under Section 203 of the federal Voting Rights Act, which, among other things, requires voting materials to be provided in different languages.

Experts, elections officials and voters provided a range of possible explanations for the higher Latino rejection rates across age groups, including lower education and literacy levels.

Latinos in the eight counties have substantially lower education levels than whites, according to U.S. Census data. The largest gap is in Grant County: 92% of white adults have completed at least high school compared to just under half of Latino adults. Six of the counties rank among the seven lowest statewide in literacy measures for the overall adult population. 

Morales and others working in community services think that lower education and literacy levels among the region’s Latino community pose challenges to voting successfully.

“The usage of signatures as an identifying marker is somewhat questionable as a policy choice given the education levels of the local Latino population,” Morales said.

Young voters face high mismatch rejection

Voters aged 18 to24 represented fewer than 10% of all accepted ballots in the eight counties, but 40% of mismatch rejections. For all counties combined, as age increases, mismatch rejection rates decrease.

And Latino voters make up nearly 40% of young voters in these counties. In contrast, non-Latino voters in these counties dominate the oldest and largest group: they are 94% of voters age 65 or older.

The youngest Latino voters’ mismatch rate is nearly twice that of their non-Latino peers. 

Jesenia Hernandez experienced just that problem in August 2020 when she was 24. Because of a medical procedure, Hernandez didn’t have the time or energy to fix her signature challenge in that election. She had registered to vote nearly seven years earlier and knew that her signature had likely changed.

For the November election, Hernandez studied her driver’s license and tried to repeat that signature on her Franklin County ballot. That careful copying of her own signature worked, and her vote counted.

Still, the signature challenge comes as a surprise to many voters, including Lisandra Valencia, 39. She received her first signature mismatch notice in November. She is not sure why, although she admits it is possible her signature has evolved over the past 20 years. Experts say this is common.

“Signature instability” refers to the propensity for signatures to change over time and across contexts.

Signatures might change rapidly among the youngest voters, and more gradually among older voters, according to the Washington State Patrol, which provides the required forensic training on signature matching for elections staff. Signature instability also affects voters with disabilities.

Here is how the Washington State Patrol describes signature instability: “There will always be variations in signatures since they are the product of a person and not the output of a machine.” These natural variations may be “subtle” or “drastic,” depending on the context of the signature — a state Department of Licensing electronic pad versus a ballot, for example.

The state patrol training continues: “Signatures will also change and mature as the writer ages. Signatures typically continue to mature through the writer's 20's.”

“It puts in me a sense of making sure that my vote does count, that it’s in on time. I’m glad I sent it earlier. But I wish I got something back to know that it was counted,” Valencia said of the experience. Because COVID-19 affected her family, she did not have time to proactively check her ballot’s final status, she said. Washington Secretary of State records show that Franklin County accepted it.

A woman stands next to a ballot box.

Lisandra Valencia, 39, was surprised that her signature on her November 2020 ballot was challenged. She acknowledges that her signature has might have changed over the years. Such “signature instability,” the propensity for signatures to evolve of time, is common, according to experts who have studied the situation. (Dan DeLong/InvestigateWest)

The lost art of cursive

Some voters, particularly young ones, do not even have a cursive signature when they sign for their driver’s license or identification card.

A number of young voters told InvestigateWest that they had printed their signature when getting their driver’s license. Later they developed a cursive signature, which they used on their ballot, immediately triggering a mismatch. Adams County auditor Heidi Hunt confirmed this is a problem.

Kenisha Martinez unwittingly made this mistake. She recently registered to vote, and the Grant County auditor used her signature from her driver’s license. That signature was her printed name from 2018. When she voted in November, she signed her ballot in cursive. Her ballot was ultimately thrown out.

“It made me feel frustrated because it was my first time voting, so I was eager to finally be able to vote and make my opinion count,” Martinez said.

Many young voters did not learn cursive in school, and many future voters aren’t learning it either. That’s just one reason that King County Elections predicts that the handwritten signature will become “obsolete.”

Benton County Auditor Brenda Chilton perceives that the prevalence of print signatures is higher among Latino voters. And print is just more difficult to compare to cursive.

Even comparing cursive signatures is an “art,” according to Moore, the Chelan County auditor.

Handwriting comparison is not a science, let alone an exact science, said Itiel Dror, senior cognitive neuroscience researcher at the University College London and a recognized expert in this area. Even two handwriting experts could review the same pair of signatures and arrive at different conclusions. This leads to legitimate signatures being rejected, and potentially fraudulent ones being accepted, Dror said. 

Human judgment means bias

When trained staffers at county elections departments first review the ballot signatures, they can see the voter’s printed name, age and voter ID. According to Dror, that is enough information to trigger biases based on ethnicity, religion and more.

“I believe that there is some internal cultural process in the administration of these elections, with the rejected ballot process that is bouncing out these folks. I don’t know what it is,” said Zack Hudgins, a former Washington state representative and leader on voting rights.

But like others, he guesses that bias is only one part of the problem. He continued, “We’ve seen that in these counties, and that’s why we had to pass the Voting Rights Act.”

Studies nationally document racial bias generally in government offices, and specifically in elections administration. In one of these studies, elections officials across 48 states were less likely to respond to emails sent from Latino-sounding email addresses relative to non-Latino-sounding addresses. When they did respond, it was with lower-quality information about voting requirements, the study showed. Importantly, the researchers found no bias in counties and municipalities where mechanisms under the Voting Rights Act are in place meant to prevent racial discrimination.

“Every voter should have an equal right to their mail ballot being counted, however we know well that Latinos are more likely to have their ballots rejected for signature issues,” said Matt A. Barreto, faculty director of the UCLA Voting Rights Project. 

InvestigateWest’s findings are largely in line with other studies of vote-by-mail elections in other states that report race or ethnicity in the voter data. Research on Los Angeles County absentee ballots found that non-English ballots had a higher likelihood of rejection.

In other studies, minority, young and more recently registered voters are generally more likely to have ballots rejected. In Georgia, Hispanic voters were more likely than white voters to have a mistake, such as a signature, on the return envelope. In Florida, minority, young and first-time voters had disproportionately high rates of mail ballot rejections, although Florida does not report the reasons that votes are rejected.

Barreto, who has been an expert witness in more than two dozen Washington state and federal voting rights lawsuits, said state and federal governments should provide increased funding, training and guidance to ensure all ballots have an equal chance.

The signature mismatch rates caught Molly Matter’s attention during the Wapato 2017 mayoral race. An attorney in private practice, she specializes in federal and state voting rights law.

She said that a practice like signature verification can be “racially neutral” on its face. But, Matter added, “it is clear that the impact of how they go about the signature verification process places an undue burden on minority voters. Losing the right to vote by a government technicality is no worse than denying these citizens a ballot in the first place.”

Regardless of the underlying reasons for the mismatches, signature verification is a policy choice over what constitutes voter identification. Voters used to sign their name on a log at a physical polling place, and could try to fix any problems in person.

And yet, no evidence exists of widespread voter fraud in Washington or other vote-by-mail states, a finding confirmed by county auditors.

“I do know that voter fraud is so rare, and certainly disproportionate to the number of signatures being rejected. So maybe there are opportunities for different verification methods,” said the ACLU’s Schuster.

How Signature Verification Works

All counties in Washington state moved to vote-by-mail elections in 2011. The process of signature verification unfolds in multiple stages during and after the election. Voters sign an oath on the ballot envelope, confirming their identity and eligibility to vote.

Here’s the process:

  • The voter can fill in his or her phone number in case there is a problem with the ballot.
  • When county elections staffers receive ballots, they scan them through a machine that takes a picture of the signature.
  • A trained staff member reviews the ballot signature beside the signature or signatures on file with the elections office. If that worker flags a possible mismatch, a second person, usually more experienced, reviews the signature.
  • If the second, and sometimes third, review concludes that the signature does not match, the county mails the voter a notice immediately, usually with a signature update form. The voter can return this form to elections and permanently update their signature.
  • If the county has not received a form from the voter by three days before the County Canvassing Board meets to certify an election, the elections office calls the voter if contact information is available. This means that most voters have at least two to three weeks to fix, or “cure,” problems with a ballot – up until the night before election certification.

The above steps are the legal minimum. In King County, voters can provide their email on the ballot. In some counties, elections staff might call voters sooner than the three-day window. In Adams County, staffers started texting voters just this past November.

If the voter never responds, the three-member County Canvassing Board is the only entity with the power to reject a ballot. Under Washington state law, three elected officials make up the CCB: the County Auditor, Prosecutor, and Chair of the Legislative body. In a charter county, like King County, the Director of Elections fills the role of County Auditor on the CCB. These officials can, and sometimes do, designate their authority to someone else to certify the election and reject ballots for any given election.

Some CCBs review each signature, while other CCBs accept the recommendations of elections staff and reject the mismatches as a batch. InvestigateWest’s reporting suggests that it is rare for the CCB to overturn elections staffers’ recommendations, but it does happen. CCB members are encouraged to receive training, and frequently do so, but that is not required under state law.

The Washington State Patrol offers forensic training that meets the legal requirements for the elections staffers who review signatures.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Latino as a race rather than ethnicity and has since been updated.

One Comment

  • Marc Brenman says:

    Is this situation going to be referred to the Voting Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division of the US Dept of Justice? It should. Under the new Administration, the matter is more likely to be handled well.

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