The following editorial originally appeared in The Seattle Times:
Over the past three years, the Legislature has taken steps to help make voting more convenient for Washingtonians. Yet, thousands of ballots still are discarded each election year statewide because election workers aren’t able to resolve signature discrepancies.
Voters’ signatures on ballot envelopes are compared with signatures on file, such as voter registration cards and past ballots to make sure the signatures match. Those deemed questionable are flagged, and the county attempts to contact the voter to resolve the matter. If the voter cannot be reached, the ballot is not counted.
The state adopted this process as it moved to voting by mail. Yet, it doesn’t work for all voters. A 2022 report by the Washington State Auditor’s office after a review of 10 counties found that:
- Younger (age 18-21) voters were almost three times more likely to have their ballots rejected than the state’s oldest (65+) voters;
- The greatest disparity was between white and Black voters. In the 2020 election, signatures of Black voters were rejected at a rate of four times that of white voters;
- The rejection rate of Hispanic and Native American voters was 2.5 times that of white voters;
- Only two of the audited counties called or emailed voters within one day of challenging their ballots.
We need to do better, while ensuring ballots are cast by legal voters. Far too many Washingtonians’ voting rights are held hostage until a county elections worker makes contact with them to prove that it was the legal voter who signed the ballot under penalty of perjury.
A lawsuit was filed last year on behalf of three groups that represent populations whose ballots are disproportionately discarded: Vet Voice Foundation, representing veterans and active military personnel; El Centro de la Raza, representing Latino voters; and The Washington Bus, representing young voters.
Voting by mail is considered a safe and convenient way to conduct elections. Ensuring that the ballots are cast by the registered voter remains an important goal. But the fact that two people can look at a signature and decide to disqualify a voter speaks to the need for the state to allow counties to try other methods to verify identities, along with signatures. That would require action by the Legislature.
Meanwhile, county elections directors should ramp up outreach to educate voters on the importance of signatures and urge voters to include phone numbers and email addresses on their ballots when possible.
King County Superior Court Judge Mark Larrañaga is expected to have a decision in the civil case in a few weeks. However he rules, an appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely. As all parties work toward creating a more perfect system, may they remember that the foundation of a democracy relies on free and fair elections where all voices can be heard.