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Voting by mail is secure, but it has a seriously low-tech downside: your signature

One of the main reasons absentee ballots get rejected is that the signature you write on them doesn’t match with what the state has on file for you.

Voting by mail is secure, but it has a seriously low-tech downside: your signature
[Source illustration: GDJ/Pixabay]
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By now you’ve thought seriously about voting by mail. You’ve seen the long lines of angry and/or nervous and/or bored mask-wearing people outside of polling places, as in Milwaukee during the primaries, and you don’t want that to be you. What you might not realize is that while voting by mail is widely considered to be secure, it’s still a clunky, low-tech process governed by decades-old laws. And whether or not your vote is counted could easily come down to the way you sign your ballot.

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One of the main reasons absentee ballots get rejected is that the signature you write on them doesn’t match with the signature the state has on file for you. That determination, it turns out, isn’t made by handwriting experts or fancy computer vision algorithms, but rather by untrained (and often harried) election workers.

And the deck is stacked against those people anyway. That’s because the two signatures they’re asked to match were created in very different ways and at very different times.

When the election worker receives your mail-in ballot, they match the signature on it with a signature on file, which is usually pulled from DMV records. At the DMV, you almost always write your signature using a pen stylus on a screen.

[Photo: courtesy of VoteAmerica]
“It’s actually not your manual signature,” says Debra Cleaver, founder of the voter-enablement tech nonprofit VoteAmerica. “Whenever I sign with one of those pens, which is usually when I sign for a UPS delivery, it’s a very loose approximation of my signature.”

The look of your signature is highly variable to begin with, but when you add years between two of your signatures, the difference can be dramatic.

“For a lot of people, the signature the DMV has on file is the one they originally wrote when they got their learner’s permit when they were 15 years old,” Cleaver says. (Some states, such as Texas, do have rules limiting the age of the signature.)

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You’re asked to create a “wet signature” with a pen on your mail-in ballot. Election officials do the signature match to make sure it was really you who filled out the ballot. A mismatch could, in theory, reveal a fraudulent ballot, but real fraud attempts are very rare. In the vast majority of cases, a mismatch reveals only that the voter wrote a signature on their ballot that looks different from the signature they wrote when they got their driver’s license.

“Nobody tells you when you sign your vote-by-mail ballot that it needs to match your signature on file with the DMV,” Cleaver says.

A weak spot in the process

Cleaver, who has been a technology advocate for vote-by-mail since 2008 (she founded Vote.org), says voting by mail reduces election costs, increases turnout (especially during a pandemic), and encourages people to vote down-ballot and make more informed decisions. But, she says, using a signature as a unique identifier is a weak spot in the process. Cleaver now runs VoteAmerica, a voting-enablement tech nonprofit that uses technology to clear the barriers to casting a mail-in ballot.

“I would personally set up a system where you put the last four digits of your social security number,” she says. “That’s an actual unique identifier that every U.S. citizen has.”

As soon as we see a concerted effort to move away from handwritten signatures in elections, then we’ll probably see a concerted effort to block it.”

Debra Cleaver, VoteAmerica

The reason that hasn’t happened is that election law has not kept pace with corporate America when it comes to identity verification. Corporations pushed states to adopt the Uniform Electronic Transaction Act, which established that electronic signatures were legally binding, and 47 states did between 1995 and 2005. Then, U.S. corporations worked with Congress to push through a federal law that said essentially the same thing—the ESIGN Act in 2000. There’s been no similar push for laws that legitimize electronic signatures to verify the identity of voters and the validity of ballots.

Such a push would likely have trouble gaining bipartisan support. “As soon as we see a concerted effort to move away from handwritten signatures in elections, then we’ll probably see a concerted effort to block it,” Cleaver says. Electronic signatures in voting, after all, would very likely increase election participation.

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Whether mail-in ballots even need a signature is a legitimate question. The ballot’s return envelope contains a bar code that election officials match to the voter’s record in the voter file. And, as Cleaver points out, in every state the ballot is delivered and returned via the U.S. Postal Service, a federal agency that is, in effect, confirming that a specific individual voter lives at a specific address.

The writing on the walls

As the November 3 presidential election approaches, marking a historic pivot-point for the U.S., there are already distinct signs that signatures could be a real problem. In Nevada’s primary election in June, 6,700 ballots were rejected because the secretary of state said the signatures on the ballots didn’t match the signatures from the voter file. In May, 31 New Jersey municipalities held an all-mail-in election and ended up rejecting 10% of the ballots—the No. 1 reason was signature mismatches.

A recent study of the 2020 Florida primary by Stanford and MIT researchers showed that younger and minority voters were more likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected. Only 1.3% of the total number of mailed ballots were rejected in the election, yet 3.56% ballots cast by 18-to-29-year-olds went uncounted, and were rejected, and 2.32% of Black voters’ mailed ballots were not counted. (The researchers do not speculate on the reason for this.)

Part of the problem is that many voters have no way of knowing if their ballot has been rejected. Only 19 states notify absentee voters if their ballot was rejected because of a signature discrepancy. Nineteen states have passed laws requiring election officials to provide a website where absentee voters can check the status of their ballot, and another 14 states have built such sites voluntarily. How many voters ever find out about these sites is another question.

Mailed-in ballots have been rejected for signature mismatches in numerous past elections, but not that many. Pre-pandemic, rejected mail-in ballots accounted for only about 1.5% of total votes. But the issue could be magnified this year as more people vote by mail because of the coronavirus. In Florida’s primary in 2016, 29% of the ballots were mailed in; in the 2020 primary, the number grew to 40%, according to the Stanford-MIT study.

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On November 3, the U.S. will still be a troubled society, simultaneously rocked by social upheaval and a deadly disease, and divided by a wildly partisan political environment. Add to that an unpopular president who is already developing a narrative where absentee voting is used as a pretext for declaring the election invalid (he’s since said absentee ballots are fine, but only in Florida). And add to that the fact that the new Trump-installed postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, is imposing cost-cutting measures that could seriously affect the Postal Service’s ability to distribute and return absentee ballots in time to be counted.

A lot is riding on vote-by-mail running smoothly. Let’s hope that signature matching doesn’t become 2020’s version of the dangling chad.

You can do your part to prevent this by making sure the signature you write on your absentee ballot looks a lot like the one on your driver’s license.

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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