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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Ballot rejection rate this election on par with previous seasons, but disparities remain

A voter casts her ballot at the downtown Spokane Public Library.   (Libby Kamrowski)
A voter casts her ballot at the downtown Spokane Public Library.  (Libby Kamrowski)

OLYMPIA – During every election, a number of ballots are rejected. Sometimes, it’s due to missing or nonmatching signatures. Other times, it’s because the ballot was not cast until after the 8 p.m. election day deadline.

About 1.2% of ballots were challenged in this year’s election in Washington, though not all of those may have ultimately been rejected. The counties with the highest percentage of challenged ballots were Adams, Clark, King and Kittitas.

If a ballot is challenged, voters can cure their ballots by submitting a new signature.

The Spokane County Canvassing Board rejected 2,443 ballots for this year’s general election. That’s 1.09% of ballots cast. More than 1,400 of those were because the signature didn’t match. Another 735 were returned too late to be counted, and 266 were unsigned. A handful of others had different problems, such as missing a witness signature.

“That is pretty much in line with previous years,” Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said in an interview.

Voters whose ballots were turned in on time but had a signature problem were sent a letter within 24 hours of when their ballot was processed, Dalton said. The letter outlines a process for them to update their signature without having to physically go to an elections office. Elections workers will also call a voter three days before results are certified.

“This is a very simple, straightforward process for a voter to perform to have their already-cast ballot counted,” she said.

About 1,600 voters in Spokane cured their signatures.

Some have questioned the ballot rejection process . A lawsuit filed in King County says the ballot procedure that is set up to find voter fraud disenfranchises young voters and people of color, according to a story from InvestigateWest.

But in a House State Government and Tribal Relations committee meeting on Thursday, a presentation from the State Auditor’s Office showed most counties are just following state law when it comes to rejecting ballots.

The State Auditor’s Office in February released a report of ballot rejections statewide from the 2020 general election. The report found that fewer than 30,000 ballots out of 4.2 million cast in the 2020 election were rejected, but there were some disparities among those rejected.

The report showed that ballots from younger voters and those with less voting experience were more likely to be rejected. The ballot rejection rate for voters between the ages of 18 and 21 was nearly 2.7%. The rate for voters 30 and older was less than one percent.

White voters had the lowest ballot rejection rate among racial and ethnic groups, with less than a percent rejection rate, while Black voters had the highest rejection rate at about 2.5%.

The most significant variable related to rejection was the county where the ballot was cast, according to the report. In the 2020 election, Franklin, Okanogan, Adams and Kittitas had the highest percentage of rejections. Spokane County’s rate was 0.46%, among the lower half of counties.

Despite the differences among groups and counties, the auditor’s report did not find many patterns to explain the disparities, only that there was no evidence of bias by election workers who reject ballots.

Scott Frank, director of performance and IT audit at the auditor’s office, said the office looked specifically for bias in elections workers and did not see evidence for it.

“On the one hand, it’s encouraging,” Frank said. “On the other hand, it doesn’t give us a lot of answers.”

In their audit, the Auditor’s Office took the same training to compare the signatures that elections officials did, used software to identify clear matches, reviewed questionable signatures and asked for help from the Secretary of State’s Office. They then reviewed more than 7,200 ballots and compared their findings with those of elections officials.

In the end, the Auditor’s Office agreed with 98% of the rejected signatures they reviewed.

To try to better understand ballot rejection rates, the Legislature has provided funding to researchers at the University of Washington who will spend the next year examining disparities in ballot rejection rates.

Researchers have already observed the elections process in four counties across the state – including the signature matching process – and will use that information to document best practices for counties.

Dalton said there’s always a balance between finding ballots with illegitimate signatures and rejecting ballots of legitimate voters who may have a signature that doesn’t completely match their records.

“We go through training, but it’s not an exact science,” Dalton said. “The staff that do these comparisons are experienced and are very good at what they do.”

Dalton said auditors are talking about different ways to verify ballots that don’t include signatures, but there hasn’t been a good alternative. One option is using personal identification numbesrp in addition to signatures, she said.

In Thursday’s committee hearing, Spokane Republican Rep. Jenny Graham suggested the responsibility to match signatures might be on the voters to do a better job when they sign their ballots.

Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane, said a reasonable approach might be to simply remind voters on their ballot that the signature they use should be the one that matches either their driver’s license or voter registration form.

Better informing voters of their role is one of a number of recommendations that came out of the State Auditor’s report. Others included proactively obtaining up-to-date contact information for voters, keeping voters informed about vote-by-mail and collecting multiple versions of signatures.

Michael Huynh, program manager at the auditor’s office, said counties with up-to-date contact information for their voters often had higher rates of voters curing their ballots.

Some recommendations that counties could implement from other states included using digital technologies such as cell phones for resolving signature issues, sending automatic voter notifications on ballot status or using PINs to verify voters’ identity.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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