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Tuesday, December 5, 2023
Dec. 5, 2023

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Washington court to hear case that seeks to stop ballot signature rejections


A lawsuit seeking to stop Washington from rejecting ballots where a voter’s signature appears to differ from the one on file — a practice that disproportionately tossed the votes of younger people and people of color — has prompted heated pushback from elections officials, who contend it could leave the state wide open for voter fraud.

The legal battle is playing out in King County Superior Court, where a trio of liberal nonprofit groups filed a lawsuit last November, arguing that the signature rejections are subjective and unconstitutional, tossing out thousands of legitimate votes while doing next to nothing to ferret out the rare instances of actual fraud.

In response, elections officials, including Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, have defended the signature checks, warning in dire terms that scrapping them could lead to a total collapse of election integrity and potentially scuttle the state’s all-mail voting system.

A key court hearing is set for Tuesday, at which the opposing sides will seek to persuade Judge Mark Larrañaga to rule in their favor without proceeding to a trial.

Regardless of the outcome, Hobbs’ office and other elections officials say they’re working on rules changes and training aimed at reducing the number of legitimate ballots that are disqualified due to signature challenges.

State law requires county elections offices to scrutinize signatures on ballot envelopes and verify they match the signature on file for the voter. If a signature looks different, elections offices send notices to voters giving them a chance to fix the issue.

The lawsuit names as defendants Hobbs, as well as King County Elections Director Julie Wise and members of the King County Canvassing Board.

Laying out the arguments

Attorneys for the opposing sides have laid out starkly differing assessments of the validity of ballot signature challenges in motions filed ahead of next week’s hearing.

“Consistent penmanship is not a constitutional prerequisite to vote in Washington state,” wrote Kevin Hamilton, a Seattle attorney who has represented the Democratic Party in election disputes across the country, in a summary judgment motion for the plaintiffs.

Yet alleged signature mismatches have disenfranchised more than 170,000 Washington voters over the past seven years, and required tens of thousands of others to jump through hoops to get their votes counted after initial signature rejections, Hamilton wrote.

“Washington’s signature verification requirement is a guilty-until-proven-innocent regime, an abhorrence to our constitutional system in general and intolerable when it strips eligible voters of their right to vote,” he wrote.

Attorneys for the state have countered that signature verification — while imperfect — is a necessary safeguard and argued that without it the worst fever dreams of vote-fraud conspiracy theorists could become a reality.

In a motion asking that the lawsuit be dismissed, Karl Smith, deputy solicitor general with the state Attorney General’s Office, called such signature checks “the linchpin” of Washington’s vote-by-mail system.

“It allows the broadest possible access while ensuring that only registered voters are able to cast their ballots and promoting public confidence that vote-by-mail is safe and secure,” Smith wrote.

Smith raised the specter of a hostile foreign government, such as China or Russia, exploiting a system without such safeguards. “Without signature verification, a hostile state actor could download and vote thousands of ballots from infrequent voters, who are unlikely to catch the abuse at all,” he wrote.

Stuart Holmes, the director of elections for the Secretary of State’s Office, predicted devastating consequences if a court were to forbid counties from rejecting ballots due to signature problems.

In a court declaration that cited Washington’s razor-thin and disputed 2004 gubernatorial election margin as well as the false claims by supporters of former President Donald Trump about the 2020 election, Holmes said elections offices are already dealing with widespread distrust among some segments of voters.

“These sorts of unsupported voter fraud claims are corrosive to the election

systems that I have spent my career building, and I need tools to combat them,” said Holmes, who has worked in election administration for more than three decades.

Without signature checks, he added, “I could no longer explain to voters how we are so confident that elections in Washington state are fair, safe and secure.”

Disqualified at different rates

Hamilton, in an interview, said he was surprised state officials are talking in such dramatic terms when proven instances of voter fraud have been so vanishingly rare.

“I am a little disappointed that this Attorney General’s Office and this secretary of state have so aggressively defended the statute which is so constitutionally problematic,” he said.

He said even if the lawsuit is successful there is nothing stopping counties from continuing to use signature checks to prosecute fraudulent voters after they cast votes.

Hamilton and other attorneys at the law firm Perkins Coie filed the lawsuit on behalf of three liberal nonprofits: Vet Voice Foundation, El Centro de la Raza and The Washington Bus. Three King County voters also are plaintiffs.

One of them, Kaeleene Escalante Martinez, of Seattle, had her ballot rejected in the 2020 general election. Although she filled out paperwork to fix the signature challenge, her vote was not counted, according to the lawsuit. She subsequently had ballots similarly rejected in the 2022 primary and general elections.

“It’s frustrating,” said Escalante Martinez, 29, in an interview, noting she was born in the U.S. and is a legal voter who signed her own ballot. “I am American through and through, it just shouldn’t be happening to me.”

She said she’s not sure why her signature has been flagged so often. “It’s interesting, and I just don’t really know where I am going wrong,” she said.

But the rejections of her ballot as a younger and Latina voter fit in some ways with data showing ballots are disqualified at different rates for various demographic groups.

A state audit released last year found that ballots of Black voters were rejected for nonmatching signatures at four times the rate of white voters in the 2020 general election. Native American and Hispanic voters had ballots rejected at 2.5 times the rate of white voters, and for Asian American voters the rate was nearly double. Male voters also were more likely to have ballots rejected than female voters.

The rejection rate also varied widely among the state’s 39 counties, from a high of 1.5 percent in Franklin County, to a low of 0.04 percent in Columbia County. King County ranked seventh among counties in that election, rejecting 0.86 percent of ballots.

Hamilton and other attorneys with Perkins Coie have filed more than 60 sworn declarations from voters throughout the state who testified their ballots or those of family members were rejected even though they were legitimately signed.

Gary Pratt, of Dallesport, Klickitat County, wrote that his wife, Leslie Pratt, had signed her ballot shortly before the 2022 primary election. Her hand was shaky due to recent strokes and heart problems, and her signature was challenged.

“Leslie told me she was devastated that her vote did not count because she knew this would likely be the last election she would vote in,” Gary Pratt wrote. His wife died less than two weeks later, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit in King County isn’t the only one challenging the rejection of ballots based on signature verification.

New rules

An ongoing federal lawsuit by groups representing Hispanic voters in Eastern Washington is challenging the signature verification process used by Chelan, Benton and Yakima counties as racially discriminatory.

An analysis conducted by experts for the plaintiffs in that case found that Hispanic voters had their ballot signatures rejected in recent elections at rates three or four times higher than voters with non-Hispanic surnames.

The rejections were highest for voters with identifiable Hispanic first and last names, and decreased for those with only Hispanic last names. They were lowest if people had no identifiable Hispanic first or last names, according to the study by Matt Barreto, faculty director of the Voting Rights Project at UCLA.

Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuits, elections officials say they’re pursuing changes to try to reduce the number of ballots rejected due to signature issues.

Hobbs’ office is proposing new election rules to guide counties that would create a presumption that voter signatures are valid and would allow a challenge only if there are “multiple, significant and obvious discrepancies” compared with all signatures on file for the voter. The proposal also would make it easier for voters to “cure” signature challenges.

“This review process is now going to be codified saying all counties must do it this way,” Holmes said.

Wise, the King County elections director, said her office also has been working for the past few years to reduce ballots rejected due to signature challenges, including exploring ways for voters to provide other alternate means of verification if a signature is questioned, such as providing biometric or personal data.

“I think that signatures work for most but that they don’t necessarily work for all,” she said. “What we need to do is provide voters more ways to show us who they are rather than less.”

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