Lawsuit challenges signature verification of mail-in ballots


FILE – In this May 27, 2020 file photo, a worker processes mail-in ballots at the Bucks County Board of Elections office prior to the primary election in Doylestown, Pa. Deep-pocketed and often anonymous donors are pouring over $100 million into an intensifying dispute about whether it should be easier to vote by mail, a fight that could determine President Donald Trump’s fate in the November election. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

A federal lawsuit filed Friday seeks to force Pennsylvania election officials to change the way that voters’ signatures on mail-in ballots are verified, asserting that tens of thousands of voters are at risk of being disenfranchised in the fall presidential election.

County election officials rely on signature matching to verify mail-in ballots, but do not give voters adequate notice if their ballot was rejected because of a problem with the signature, or a chance to fix it, the lawsuit alleged.

The suit, filed by the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh and two individual voters, seeks to force election officials to give voters the chance to fix ballots that are either missing signatures, or where there’s a perceived signature mismatch.

“Each time a county board of elections — comprised of laypersons with no expertise in handwriting analysis — subjectively believes there is a mismatch between the signature accompanying the voter’s mail-in ballot and the signature in the voter’s file, that ballot is not counted, notwithstanding the many benign factors that can cause signature variation,” the suit said.

By contrast, voters at a polling station are given the opportunity to verify their identity in the face of a signature issue and cast a ballot, the suit said.

Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, whose department is in charge of Pennsylvania elections, and several county election officials were named as defendants. The administration of Gov. Tom Wolf declined to comment on pending litigation.

Similar suits have been filed in New York, New Jersey and North Dakota.

A 2019 state law greatly expanded access to mail-in balloting in Pennsylvania, and nearly 1.5 million voters cast their ballots by mail in the June primary. More than 26,000 of those ballots were rejected, the suit said, including for “signature-related errors or matters of penmanship.”

One plaintiff, Amy Cambell, 26, of Philadelphia, said her ballot was rejected because election officials had no signature on file to compare it with. “Her vote simply did not count,” the suit said.

Another plaintiff, William Gilligan, 83, of suburban Buck County, said that he’s suffered two major strokes and can’t reliably sign his name the same way every time.

With the COVID-19 pandemic generating high interest in voting by mail, “voters should not be required to risk their health or lives to cast a ballot they can be confident will count,” the suit said.

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