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How does ballot signature verification work?

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From left, Chelan County Elections Director Stephanie Wilder meets Nov. 5 with Chelan County Elections Board members: Commissioner Bob Bugert, Prosecuting Attorney Robert Sealby and Auditor Skip Moore. The board's deliberation on whether to reject a ballot with an unmatched signature is the final step in the verification process. 

WENATCHEE — Mailing off a ballot isn’t always the last step voters have to take to make sure their votes are counted.

Each election, a small number of ballots are challenged and — if no action is taken by the voter — rejected. Late postmarks and mismatched and missing signatures are the most common reasons behind a rejected ballot. Chelan County rejected 211 out of just over 24,000 ballots during last month's general election. 

Here’s a behind-the-curtain view at how ballot signatures were verified and who verified them — a process that plays out much the same way in all of Washington state's 39 counties. 

A meticulous process

The process starts with auditor's office workers on the third floor of the Chelan County Courthouse.

“It's just not a lay person,” Chelan County Auditor Skip Moore said of the workers. “The big thing is the level of trust. I know these people. They've been working for us for years, so there's that level of trust and integrity.”

The staffers who check signatures are also required to attend a signature verification training with the Washington State Patrol every two years. The training covers how to identify consistent characteristics in signature like height, spacing and tilt.

Once the auditor’s office receives the ballots and puts them into trays, a computer scans the ballots and takes a digital inventory, including which tray each ballot is in.

Election staff who are checking signatures can later on call up a tray number on the computer, which will show four signatures on the screen at a time.

Signature verification

Veronica Garcia, Chelan County's elections technician and assistant director, checks signatures on primary election ballots on July 29. 

The verifier worker compares the signature on the ballot with the one on the screen (For the vast majority of voters, the signature on file with the auditor’s office is the one on their driver’s license). Once the election staff has verified all four ballot signatures, they move one to another batch and repeat the process.

If there appears to be a signature that doesn’t match, staff sets it aside, usually after getting a second opinion from a coworker. This is called a “challenge.” Within 24 hours of a ballot being challenged, the county sends a letter to the voter notifying them of the issue and inviting them to remedy it.

Voters have until the day before the election is certified to fix their ballots and still have them counted in the election. If the voters provided a phone number on their ballot, they will receive a robocall two days prior to the cutoff reminding them to cure, or fix, their ballot.

Voters can mail back their info or fix the issue in person. If the election office can get a match with the updated info, they can move forward and count the ballot. If they don’t, or if the voter doesn’t try to fix the ballot, it goes to the canvassing board.

The board — which is composed of the county auditor, the county prosecuting attorney and a county commissioner — is the only entity with the power to reject a ballot. Between the election and certification, the board meets every three days.

Moore said depending on the election, the board may preview challenged ballots during that time and make a predetermination that, unless something is done by the voter, the ballot will be rejected. The 211 ballots rejected by the board in the most recent general election represent 0.9% of the 24,000 returned ballots. 

If two of the three canvassing board members vote that the ballot should be rejected, it’s stamped “rejected” on the outside of the envelope, initialled by the board and never opened.

Once a ballot is rejected, the voter will be notified of the rejection and the reason behind it.

“We are primarily trying to accept ballots here,” Moore said. “Although we want to make sure that people who are voting are who they say they are.”

Because of that, Moore said staff will accept things like just a first initial or a last name as long as they can still break out the part of that signature and match it with the signature on file.

Not an exact science

Ballot signatures are checked by a human eye, and Moore said completely automating the task with a machine isn’t likely to happen in the near future. And that’s simply due to the nature of signatures themselves.

“Signature verification is not 100% science because our signatures are never the same,” Moore said. “However, we all have certain traits that carry out each time we sign our name…So is it 100% foolproof? No. Is it I think 99.9%? Yes.”

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Chelan County Commissioner Bob Bugert, a member of the Chelan County Elections Canvassing Board, puts a "Reject" stamp on a ballot during the board's Nov. 5 meeting. Voters risk of running out of time to fix any ballot issues the later they turn in their ballots. 

Those consistent characteristics can include the height or slant of the entire signature, where someone signs in relation to the line they’re signing on and whether they’re writing clockwise or counterclockwise.

Even if a voter’s official signature is a drawing of a dragon — and yes, that’s something Moore has seen — election staff can still pick up the consistencies.

“It’s kind of like the old little kids’ magazines where you have to say what’s wrong with the pictures,’ he said. “You see the two pictures side by side and when you first look at them, you think they’re the same. But then you start looking you may see the frying pan is missing. Signatures are kind of the same way.”

He said there’s a number of reasons someone’s signature might not match. You do a throwaway, or credit card signature in a hurry. Or people’s signatures have changed over time.

Unlike the human eye, which can pick up on those consistencies and variations, a machine would look for exact matches, meaning election staff would have two options: a machine that rejects virtually every signature or one whose confidence level is so dialed down as to be rendered useless.

The varied nature of signatures means it’s fairly difficult for a forged signature to make it past the election staff. Even when a family member signs for someone, they usually catch those, said Moore. Mass voter fraud by signature forgery would be an impossible feat, he said.

“For somebody to commit a level of voter fraud through the signature process, well, you would have to be able to know the signatures of vast numbers of people and do it well enough to not have them get caught,” Moore said. “And two, you would have to have voters not realizing they didn't get their original ballot.”

Advice for voters

Moore said the easiest way for a voter to avoid a having their ballot rejected is to turn in the ballot as soon as possible. Waiting until election day means a voter will have little time to fix their ballot if a challenge does arise.

Based on the volume of last-minute ballots the auditor’s office is receiving, 48 hours could go by before each ballot has been checked.

In a special election, when there are only 10 days between election day and certification, that 48 hours could mean the difference between having enough time to fix the ballot and not.

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Chelan County Commissioner Bob Bugert, a member of the Chelan County Elections Canvassing Board, puts an "Invalid" stamp on a ballot during the board's Nov. 5 meeting. Election staff checks every single ballot, and the ones with unresolved issues are ultimately rejected bu the canvassing board. 

For example, if election day is Tuesday and the ballot wasn’t checked and challenged until Thursday, the voter may not get the letter notifying them of the challenge until Saturday. That gives the voter four business days until the Thursday cutoff to fix their ballot.

Moore estimated that only a third of people with challenged ballots will fix them. The majority of those individuals either have changed their signature a bit over time or have two separate signatures (an official one and a “throw away” one), such as a doctor.

He hypothesized that many people don’t fix their ballots because they had someone sign it for them, which is a class C felony.

“Take your time signing it because, yes, we look at it,” Moore said. “We look at every signature.”

Sydnee Gonzalez: (509) 661-5216

gonzalez@wenatcheeworld.com or

on Twitter @sydnee_gonzalez

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