Why is WA rejecting tens of thousands of ballots? Hint: it’s not a cheat
Before it’s official, before the winners bask in glory and the losers shrink in defeat, Washington election officials meticulously examine the lines and swoops of every signature on every ballot sent out by the post from anywhere in the state.
If they can’t match those lines and rush to a recorded signature, they flag the ballot for further review, then roll the vote if they can’t confirm the correct person signed it. This process is Washington’s last safeguard against fraud. Over the years, officials have identified only a handful of ballots that may have been fraudulently cast — out of several million votes tallied statewide.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of otherwise legitimate votes were thrown out in recent elections, not because of suspicions of fraud, but simply because the signatures didn’t match. According to a state auditor’s report released earlier this year, nearly 24,000 votes were thrown out in 2020 due to mismatched signatures, out of more than 4 million voters, disproportionately affecting young voters and voters. voters of color.
“It’s an appalling fact,” said Chad Dunn, legal director of the UCLA Voting Rights Project, a legal advocacy arm of the university’s Latino Policy & Politics Institute.
Dunn is leading a lawsuit against Yakima, Benton and Chelan counties in Washington alleging discrimination against Latino voters, following a 2021 InvestigateWest report showing those voters had above-average ballot rejection rates . The plaintiffs, including the Latino Community Fund of Washington and three citizens, are calling on counties to implement best practices to reduce bias.
Proponents of mail-in voting say it is easy, safe and accessible, increasing turnout wherever it is adopted. But Washington’s signature-matching process rejects mail-in ballots at a rate more than twice the national average, according to an analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Kevin Hamilton, a longtime Seattle-based election lawyer, suggests it’s not a system that can be fixed. He represented Christine Gregoire in the 2004 Washington gubernatorial race and Al Franken in the 2008 Minnesota contest for the US Senate.
Both won by a few hundred votes. Hamilton has seen firsthand how rejected ballots can influence an election.
In his experience, the majority of ballots reported for signature discrepancies are genuine. The very small fraud that is detected, Hamilton said, is not worth wrongfully stripping tens of thousands of people of their right to vote. “I think that’s way too high a price,” he said.
Which votes are rejected?
People sign their names for all kinds of things in all kinds of places. Invoices, leases and contracts, to name a few. Maybe they will write every letter of their name. Maybe they’ll scribble something vaguely resembling letters. Maybe they’ll dot their i’s with a heart or a star.
These signatures are rarely examined. Except when a person votes in a state like Washington which has all elections by mail.
“Signature is one of the main tools for us to be able to validate this…the person who signed, returned and completed this ballot is who they claim to be,” said Stuart Holmes, acting chief electoral officer for the Secretary of State’s Office.
Compared to the total number of votes cast, the rate of rejected ballots is relatively low. For example, in 2020, Washington election officials rejected less than 1%. However, nearly 24,000 votes were erased due to signature incompatibilities.
Rejection rates varied from county to county, according to the auditor’s report released in February. Franklin County rejected the most, rejecting 1.5% of ballots, and Columbia County rejected the least, just 0.04%.
Young voters were almost three times more likely to have their ballot rejected than older voters in Washington. And ballots cast by new voters were five times more likely to be challenged than those cast by people who had already voted. Black voters (2.49%) were contested at four times the rate of white voters (0.63%).
In King County, non-English speakers were more likely to have their ballots rejected, despite translation of election materials into Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. (In September, the King County Elections Office made budget requests to add Somali and Russian to this list.)
Sometimes simple changes can lead to dramatic improvements. In Oregon, officials ensured that voters did not have to physically travel to an election office to process their ballot. They can simply post a signed statement. As a result, between the 2016 and 2020 general elections, the number of ballots rejected for signature issues dropped by 5%, according to the Portland Tribune.
Washington already allows voters to return signed statements by mail or, as in the case of King County, by email.
“Something we stress to our constituents all the time is ‘Track your ballot, track your ballot.’ It’s really easy,” said King County election spokesperson Halei Watkins. .
Even with best practices in place, no matter how easy and accessible you make voting, “I think we have to be careful that we’re going to get to 100 percent,” said Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell. There will always be rejected ballots, and at least in some cases rightly so, he said. Reviewing signatures is subject to human error, said Hamilton, the election attorney.
“They can train them all day, they can send them to school for a year, and they’re still going to make a mistake,” he said. “And they’re going to make a lot of mistakes.”
Fraud is extremely rare
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, an American is more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit mail-in ballot fraud. A survey of prosecutors and county auditors in Washington after the 2016 election identified only two votes that led to prosecutions, both in Asotin County.
Neither was actually counted.
A man has pleaded guilty to perjury, a misdemeanor, for voting on behalf of his late wife, an action he says was part of his “last wishes”. Another man had apparently voted in both Idaho and Washington.
County auditors reported a handful of other cases that weren’t prosecuted: more people voting in two jurisdictions, seniors accidentally voting twice, or other seemingly innocuous situations.
Fell, the Snohomish County auditor, said the bar for proving fraud is high. And most people don’t intentionally try to do it.
“In most cases, when we seek additional information from these people, it’s clear they were confused as to what was permitted by law,” he said.
Signature verification, he said, is the gold standard for identifying these errors. Holmes, the state’s chief electoral officer, said administrators have been thinking about “what’s beyond the signatures” for some time now, especially as cursive writing fades.
For example, Washington could start using personal identification numbers like some other states do.
Such a change would “require a great amount of communication and coordination with the public” about expectations, Holmes said.
Vermont started universal mail-in voting in 2020 and made it permanent this year, but election workers there don’t check signatures. Eight other states, as well as Washington, DC and the Virgin Islands, also do not verify signatures on mail-in ballots.
In this system, no one has their ballot rejected for a mismatched signature, just a missing signature. Critics say this increases the chances of fraud, however small.
Dunn, with the Voting Rights Project, said something had to be done to correct racial disparities. The lawsuit against Yakima, Benton and Chelan counties could force the issue. He could be tried next summer.
“We don’t think the Constitution allows people to say, ‘God, this is difficult, and so we’re going to continue to let this condition continue to exist,'” Dunn said.
InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to
investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest.