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Thousands Lose Right to Vote Because of Poor Penmanship

Tens of thousands of California voters may have lost their right to vote in 2016 without knowing it.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against California in August because 45,000 2016 election ballots were rejected as voter signatures didn’t match the signatures on voter identification cards.

“People should not be denied their right to vote because a government official doesn’t like their penmanship,” ACLU attorney Michael Risher said in a statement accompanying the suit, which was filed in the state Court of Appeal in San Francisco.

The ACLU’s California legal action is not the first time the organization has filed such a suit, nor is California the only state where mismatched signatures have resulted in the rejection of mail-in ballots.

Julie Ebenstein, staff attorney at the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said county elections officials in California had the right to decide whether a voter’s signature on the mail-in ballot envelope matched the voter’s signature on file.

“Officials make this determination without expertise in handwriting analysis,” Ebenstein said.

“What’s worse, the county elections officials are not required to notify voters before their ballots are rejected,” she said in a statement. “Many voters don’t find out that their vote was not counted until after the election is over and the final vote tally announced, if at all.”

Try to write your signature the same way, twice. It’s nearly impossible. In fact, Ebenstein said it’s the rare voter who can do it.

“Signatures can change over time or with a change in the writer’s physical condition. Signatures may vary depending on whether the writer is standing or sitting and what instrument or surface they use to sign,” she said. “Many voters may simply not know that they are supposed to sign their ballot in the same way that they signed their registration.”

Ebenstein said it’s a problem that could only get worse because of California’s Voter’s Choice Act. More than half of all California voters are now casting mail-in ballots. But all voters in participating California counties will receive mail-in ballots next year, thanks to the Voter’s Choice Act.

But even though tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, more California voters will be casting their ballots by mail and signing the envelope, the state has no uniform standard for comparing signatures.

When it comes to handwriting analysis, there’s no guarantee that a California elections official knows what he’s doing when he compares the signature on the mail-in ballot envelope to the signature on file with county election departments.

Immigrants and people for whom English is not their first language are more likely to produce signatures that don’t match.

“A voter whose native script is written right to left or in non-Latin characters may show more variation when signing their name in English,” Ebenstein said. “Minority groups are affected the most. Asian-Americans voters, Latino voters, and voters born outside of the United States are disproportionately disenfranchised by a perceived signature non-match.”