click the signatures to identify the match.
More than half of the states rely on signature matching to verify the identities of people who vote by mail. These states compare the signatures they have on file (from voter registrations, ballot applications, or the D.M.V.) to the ones voters put on their ballot envelopes.
Reading: Signature match mail in voting
but the practice is not implemented uniformly in all states, or even within them. The New York Times contacted officials in every comparison state to ask about their procedures. most leave decisions in the hands of local officials or provide minimal instructions. Only Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Oregon, Washington, and West Virginia said they provided state guidelines or training materials.
Colorado has been conducting elections by mail since 2014 and has strong guidelines for verifying signatures. While some large counties use signature verification software to speed up the process, such as that used in banking to verify signatures on checks, others, such as Jefferson County near Denver, verify each signature manually.
the times asked county elections director cody swanson to compare a series of real and fake “rebecca” signatures to a real one. this is what he said about them.
“generally speaking, it just doesn’t look like it. we have a straight up and down tilt, while the reference firm mostly goes to the right.”
Although a person’s signature may change over time, some characteristics tend to remain. officials are trained to assess a signature first on “broad” characteristics such as size, aspect ratio, slant, and typing speed.
“it’s very, very consolidated, whereas the reference image has a good flow and takes about twice as much space.”
“you have a lot of apparent hesitation in slow movements that would indicate someone is trying to replicate someone else’s signature.”
“the overall size and spacing is initially a flag. and then we’re also finding inconsistencies with the specific forms within that firm.”
if electoral judges find inconsistencies in general characteristics, they take a closer look at “local” characteristics, such as the proportions and size of individual letters; initial and final strokes; the presence or absence of pen risers; and curves, loops, and crossover points (the areas where different shapes meet).
“the final stroke on that is very elegant, but you definitely don’t see it in the reference image.”
“this is a great example of pen lifting.”
“the r looks relatively similar. but the e is much bigger and more pronounced.”
this signature would have been initially rejected due to the size, slant and proportions of some of the letters.
Signature Matching in Jefferson County is a multi-step process. if an election judge accepts a ballot based on the most recent signature on file in a first pass (usually within five to 10 seconds), it is counted.
but if initially rejected, the signature is evaluated using additional historical signatures by a bipartisan team of two judges (usually within one to five minutes). if at least one judge accepts it, it counts. if both decline, voters are notified and given the opportunity to confirm their identities and have their votes counted.
Accepted, after seeing additional reference signatures.
(Mr. Swanson correctly identified all of these forged signatures, including an additional three included in the illustration at the top of this page. In reality, voter fraud of any kind is extremely rare.)
Signatures on ballots that have been scanned by sorting machines are matched by election officials in Jefferson County and displayed along with the voter’s most recent reference signature on file.
there are even faster ways to do this. In neighboring Denver, automated signature verification software runs the first round of matching. the electoral judges review the signatures that the machine does not accept in up to two additional stages.
Automated Verification is now used in about 70 large counties across the country, according to Greg Consejo, vice president of ParaScript, the company that supplies Denver’s software.
signature verification software was developed over 15 years ago for the banking industry, mr. the council said. in general, the threshold for accepting a check is set much lower than for accepting a ballot, and human review is still much more widely used for elections.
“If banks are risk averse for compliance and regulation, election officials are a different order of magnitude more risk averse,” he said.
in denver, the software is set to accept only very close matches, about 15 to 20 percent of the ballots.
according to mr. In addition to processing ballots faster, automated software can also reduce delays because it generates fewer “false positives” — ballot signatures that are legitimate but were rejected because they degenerated over time or were written on different surfaces or under different circumstances. .
tammy patrick, senior adviser to the fund for democracy, says she found many legitimate reasons for the signatures not to match while she was an election official in arizona: “people had broken arms. they were signing with the other hand, that will change the signature right there. I’ve had people tell me they’ve had a stroke; people who told me they were signing it on their dashboard while driving down the road; they signed it at the top of the blue collection box at the post office, or at the top of their mailbox.”
“I never had a voter say they hadn’t voted on that ballot,” he said.
the reason mrs. Patrick spoke to those voters in the first place because his state had a procedure called “notice and correct,” notifying voters whose ballots contained a signature mismatch or other error, and giving them the opportunity to verify their identities and get their votes. counted
what happens when signatures don’t match
Ballot disqualification is not widespread, but it could make a difference in close elections. Nationally, 1.4 percent of mail-in ballots were rejected in 2018, with 67,000 discarded for signature mismatch (the third most common reason behind “other reasons” and tardiness).
While some states rely on a witness, photo ID, or other information to verify mail-in voters, more than half do conduct signature matching, either by law or in practice. some compare ballot signatures to dozens of historical signatures on file, while others compare only to the signature on the voter’s ballot application or to a low-resolution image captured on a d.m.v. signature pad
amber mcreynolds, who heads the national home voting institute, argues that, for now, signature matching is the best way to strike a balance between security, transparency, and accessibility for voters. but you have to do it right, said mrs. Mcreynolds, who helped implement Colorado’s mail-in voting system as an election official.
Prior to 2020, many states did not require election officials to notify voters of a signature mismatch and give them the opportunity to “cure” or fix their ballot. in many cases, voters never realized their ballots were thrown away.
But in a series of trials this year, judges almost uniformly ruled that, under the constitution, due process requires that voters be notified of an issue and given an opportunity to correct the signatures used to certify their tickets.
at least nine states have recently changed their practices. Only four do not have a notice-and-fix policy, and in all of them except South Dakota, lawsuits are still pending.
Mark Gaber, director of trial litigation at the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group that has filed five of at least 12 signature comparison cases litigated this year, argues that it’s problematic to rely on the practice to verify to the voters.
“The courts have determined that there is a high risk of being misidentified as not having signed your ballot,” he said.
Still, if states are going to do a signature comparison, he said, there should be a robust system for detecting errors. Some methods have been shown to be more effective than others. During the June North Dakota primary, 83 percent of voters who were contacted by phone about a discrepancy verified their ballot on time. that was the case for only 34 percent of those who were contacted only by mail.
Even with the opportunity to correct a signature discrepancy, there are other dangers for those who vote by mail. depending on the state, ballots may be rejected for incomplete witness information or failure to place a ballot inside an internal “secret envelope.”
mr. Gaber advises voters to read the instructions carefully when filling out a ballot at home, because they don’t have a voting machine or poll worker to notify them that they’ve missed something. And when it comes to signing, consistency is key.
“Keep in mind, both when you apply for the ballot and later when you sign it, that you should use your ‘careful signature,’ not your ‘July 11 receipt signature,'” he said. “or if you’re going to do that, do it again when you vote the ballot.”
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