The case followed InvestigateWest reporting that showed Latino voters were disenfranchised at disproportionate rates

By Daniel Walters / InvestigateWest

Washington state’s signature-verification procedures are meant to root out exceedingly rare cases of voter fraud. But what they’ve typically done is get a lot of innocent legal votes tossed out. In 2020 alone, the state rejected more than 24,000 ballots.

And legal votes from voters with Latino- or Hispanic-sounding names, like Reyes or Mendoza, tend to get unfairly disqualified more frequently.

In the eight counties with the highest number of Latino voters, InvestigateWest’s data analysis concluded back in 2021 that voters with Hispanic-sounding names were four times more likely to have their votes discarded than other voters. And while there’s a procedure for “curing” your ballot — going online or showing up in person to fix your signature — your vote can still get rejected if your signature fails the second time. The percent of challenged ballots that get fixed are also lower for Latino voters. 

Following that report, UCLA’s Voting Rights Project sued three central Washington counties — Benton, Yakima and Chelan — where the disparities were particularly large, alleging racial discrimination. After years of litigation, the counties have finally settled, under an agreement that requires them to hold semiannual signature-verification training for county election staff and volunteers, as well as cultural competency training. 

The ballot materials will also now include Spanish language instructions on the ballot’s security sleeve outlining exactly how your signature will be verified and how to fix your ballot if your signature is rejected. 

“Everyone has the goal, including the auditors, to ensure that elections are run fairly and that everyone is able to cast a ballot,” said Sonni Waknin, voting rights counsel at the UCLA Voting Rights Project. “Just investigating and spending more time understanding why these ballots are rejected is really important.”

The case was not without its hiccups. The original federal judge presiding over the case — Salvador Mendoza — had to recuse himself in 2021 because one of his ballot signatures had initially been rejected. 

Handwriting comparisons are always prone to error. Signatures can change for a variety of reasons. Maybe a person got older, broke an arm or had a stroke. Maybe they got married and started to sign a new last name. One expert told The Atlantic in 2018 that handwriting science was tantamount to “witchcraft.”

In February 2022, the Washington State Auditor’s Office released its own study, in which it said that a sample review of 7,200 ballots showed that 98 percent of the ballots were appropriately accepted or rejected. 

Yet the study still found that Black, Native American, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander voters had their 2020 election votes rejected at almost twice the rate of white voters. It also found that younger voters and male voters were more likely to have their signature rejected. The biggest difference was in individual counties. Despite similar practices being followed in each county, the percent of rejected ballots could vary by as much as 7%.

If anything, the report found, some signatures that probably should have been flagged for review were allowed more often in different counties. 

“Members of our own team participating in the review also disagreed on whether many of the signatures matched,” the State Auditor’s report concluded. 

There are other options: In 2020, Colorado touted its elections as the “nation’s gold standard” because of innovations like “TXT2Cure” — which allows voters to easily fix an initially rejected ballot’s signature over text messages.

Both states exclusively use vote-by-mail, which means that even small percentages of improperly rejected signatures can alter the course of an election. InvestigateWest’s previous reporting found multiple races where the number of rejected signatures could have altered the outcome of the race, including the 2020 razor-thin matchup in King County between moderate Democratic state Sen. Mark Mullet and his Democratic challenger, Ingrid Anderson. 

In that race, 400 votes were rejected due to failed signature verification. The race was decided by only 58.

FEATURED IMAGE: 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, 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)

InvestigateWest ( is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. A Report for America corps member, Daniel Walters covers democracy and extremism across the region. He can be reached at