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Spin Control: For some, signing a ballot envelope isn’t a sure way to get their vote counted

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

How often have you put pen to paper and signed something in the last 11 months?

For some people, the answer might be once – when they signed the envelope for the ballot they cast in the November general election.

That can create a problem for Washington elections offices checking signatures on ballot envelopes before the ballot is cleared for processing. Signature verification is a key step in making sure the person who is registered is the person who cast that ballot. But that’s only if the signature on the ballot matches the one in Elections Office files.

Signature verification works for the vast majority of voters in Washington’s all-mail voting system. But as King County Elections Supervisor Julie Wise told a legislative committee recently, there is a small slice of the electorate for whom it doesn’t work, for one reason or another. In that county in the November election, it was about 1% of the voters who cast ballots.

Elections offices try to contact voters whose signatures don’t match. About half of the voters whose signatures “bounced” in King County were able to correct the problem and have their ballot count, Wise told the Senate State Government Committee.

Voters who are younger, older or persons of color are more likely to have their signatures rejected, a recent University of Washington study shows.

The reasons probably vary.

With signatures, practice makes perfect. But because of technology in the last decade or so, young voters may have had more practice with computers and keyboards than pen and paper for providing signatures. They may have spent more time signing a small screen at checkout with their index finger than inking the bottom line of a document. Their signatures can vary.

Signatures also change with age, and voters who registered decades ago are apt to have an altered John Hancock, sometimes as a result of physical changes.

And persons of color might speak a language other than English with an alphabet that’s not a close version of our modified Latin lettering system.

To keep from disenfranchising those voters who are likely to have their signatures rejected, Wise suggested the Legislature consider setting up “pilot programs” in different counties to allow signatures as a way of authenticating a voter’s identity.

Those might include letting voters establish a personal identification number or use some sort of biometric authentication like face or voice recognition. The use of the number on a state driver’s license or identification card are other possibilities.

The high-tech solutions sound interesting, but expensive, particularly in some of the state’s more cash-strapped counties. Although every vote counts and should be counted, the cost-benefit ratio of such systems could be questioned.

Use of a driver’s license or state-issued identification card might be a simpler solution. But it could get pushback from people who have objected for years to any type of voter ID requirements under the belief that would disenfranchise low-income people and minorities.

But perhaps a pilot program could determine whether an optional ID card, with a specific PIN that could be used in place of a signature, would enfranchise more people than sloppy signatures disenfranchise.

Record-low turnout

Statewide voter turnout was 36.4%, which is the lowest turnout for any general election since 1936, as far back as the Secretary of State’s office turnout records go.

At the Senate State Government Committee meeting, Secretary of State Steve Hobbs offered a few reasons for the turnout low-water mark.

Some people didn’t vote because they didn’t believe their mail-in ballot was secure. Some may be turned off by extremely polarized politics. For the first time in 50 years, there was no statewide race or ballot measure for voters to consider.

State and federal officials run in even-numbered years unless a vacancy occurs. In every odd-numbered year since 1973, there has been at least one initiative, constitutional amendment or tax advisory vote on the ballot. No initiative sponsors collected the necessary signatures this year, and the tax advisory measures were canceled by the Legislature earlier this year as being confusing and expensive.

One benefit from the low turnout: The problem several counties had with ballots left in mailboxes that weren’t being checked regularly was kept to a minimum.

Some mailboxes were not being used because the locks had been vandalized and the U.S. Postal Service workers were having trouble opening them. Signs had been placed on the mailboxes saying they weren’t in use, but in some cases, those too were vandalized. A total of 148 ballots were placed in such boxes.

Voters tracking their ballot status online began alerting elections officials when their ballots didn’t show up in the system. Elections officials called the Postal Service when patterns emerged. The ballots were retrieved and those that were dated on or before election day were processed and included in the final count.

Next year, the Postal Service plans to remove any of its mailboxes that aren’t in use, Hobbs said.

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