New Lawsuit Challenges California Rules on Signature Mismatch Ballots

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A new lawsuit is challenging California rules that plaintiffs say resulted in thousands of ballots discarded for signature mismatch issues. Courthouse News has more:

The American Civil Liberties Union says California election officials may have discarded over 45,000 ballots during the November 2016 election without notifying the affected voters.

The ACLU sued California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Sonoma County Registrar of Voters William Rousseau, saying the state’s practice of tossing ballots when voter signatures don’t match is a violation of the state Constitution.

“By statutory mandate, tens of thousands of California voters, including petitioners, are disenfranchised each election without even knowing their fundamental right to vote has been usurped,” the ACLU said in its petition, filed Aug. 23 in the First Appellate District. California’s appeals courts have constitutional jurisdiction over cases of public importance that must be resolved quickly.

According to the ACLU, California’s election code requires election officials to reject vote-by-mail ballots if they believe a signature on the ballot does not match the signature on file.

Plaintiffs are particularly focused on the state’s practice of discarding ballots without notice to the affected voters:

Peter La Follete, the petitioner alongside the ACLU, is a resident of Sonoma County who cast a vote-by-mail ballot in the November 2016 election only to find out later that it was tossed out. He wrote a letter to Rousseau in July asking why his ballot was disregarded, and the county registrar replied that a signature mismatch was the reason.

However, La Follete said had he been made aware of the problem before the vote was officially certified he would have gladly come to the office in person to resolve any outstanding issues.

“Mr. La Follette has voted in every presidential election since he turned 18,” the petition says. “Voting is important to him because he appreciates that his vote can have a real effect on local elections and is a way to be involved in the political process.”

The ACLU says that La Follette’s situation happened across the Golden State, and the law requiring discarding of ballots disproportionately affects Asian-American and Latino voters.

The Secretary of State’s disputes some of the lawsuit’s claims, but says it is working to improve the process and change the law:

Padilla’s office pushed back against many of the claims made in the petition, saying that California has one of the lowest vote-by-mail rejection rates in the nation.

According to Padilla’s spokesman Sam Mahood, “99.3 percent of vote-by-mail ballots that were returned in November 2016 were accepted and counted. Per a report by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, only nine other states and the District of Columbia had a higher percentage of accepted vote-by-mail ballots.”

Mahood also pointed to Padilla’s sponsorship of Assembly Bill 840, which would allow California residents to digitally fix missing signatures on vote-by-mail ballots.

Such updates to election law are important, the ACLU says, as nearly 60 percent of the votes cast in the 2016 general election came by mail.

The number only figures to climb in 2018, after California passed a law that requires every registered voter receive a vote-by-mail ballot via the mail…

The petitioners want a judge to declare the specific elections statute unconstitutional while declaring that a ballot may be discarded on the basis of a signature mismatch only if the voter is notified first.

This lawsuit is just the latest example of how the growing numbers of vote by mail ballots is forcing states and localities to rethink their own laws and processes. While there are many strong arguments for reducing reliance on traditional neighborhood precincts, it is nonetheless true that separating voters from a physical polling place eliminates the ability to assist voters and/or answer their questions before a ballot is cast. Finding ways to retain some aspect of that interaction with voters in the absence of a face-to-face transaction is part of the issue here.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see California adopt some kind of a “cure” provision for mismatched signature ballots like we’ve seen in other states. Until then, I’ll keep an eye on this lawsuit … stay tuned!

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