County Auditor Explains Those Ballot Signatures

  • The third in a series of articles about elections in Washington State by San Juan County Auditor F. Milene Henley. The County Auditor administers elections and voter registration in the County. (View first article HERE. View second article HERE.)

— from Milene Henley —

Ever thought about that signature on the back of your ballot envelope? It serves two purposes: First, it indicates your agreement to the declaration, printed on the envelope, that you are a citizen of the United States; a legal resident of Washington; at least 18 years old on Election Day; voting only once; not under the authority of the Department of Corrections; and not disqualified to vote due to a court order.

The signature also proves that you are who you say you are. Many voters are surprised to learn that every signature on every ballot envelope is verified by elections staff to ensure that it matches the signature on the voter’s registration record.

And if it doesn’t match? Here are some of the situations we see.

No signature. There are always voters who forget to sign the envelope.

“Formal” vs “casual” signatures. Some voters sign their voter registration forms and driver’s licenses neatly, using their “formal” signatures, but when it comes to voting, they dash off their signatures more casually. This can cause a mismatch in signatures.

Changing signatures. Signatures change over time, especially when people are young. The signatures of voters who register when they’re young may evolve to the point where they no longer match their registered signature. Injuries and age can also cause signatures to change, sometimes to the point where the voter must submit a new signature.

If a signature is missing or doesn’t match, elections staff will send the voter a notice inviting them to “cure” their signature – that is, provide a signature that does match.

Notices are followed up with phone calls if voters don’t respond to written notices. If there’s still no response from the voter, the signature – and the ballot – are referred to the Canvassing Board, which will ultimately decide whether to accept the signature – and the ballot – or not. (I’ll tell you more about the Canvassing Board later this year.)

Another type of mismatch occurs when voters in the same household switch ballots. If a voter signs his or her name to someone else’s ballot – which occurs most often with spouses – we’ll still accept the signature, so long as both spouses made the same mistake, and both signatures match the signatures on file.

What’s not acceptable is for spouses (or others) to sign (the legal term is “forge”) their spouse’s name on a ballot. Since we verify every signature, and we have every voter’s signature on file, we recognize it when this happens. It’s also illegal to intentionally sign another’s envelope with your own signature. Though the intent may be to be helpful (for example, the voter is traveling and hence unavailable to vote and sign his or her own ballot), the signer appears to be trying to vote twice, which is a crime.

The ballot envelope warns: It is illegal to forge a signature or cast another person’s ballot.  Attempting to vote when not qualified, attempting to vote more than once, or falsely signing this oath is a felony punishable by a maximum imprisonment of five years, a maximum fine of $10,000 or both.

Signature stamps may not be used to sign ballots, and powers-of-attorney do not apply to voting. Of course, if a voter can’t sign an envelope, because of illiteracy or incapacity, there are other options. The voter may make a mark (an “X”) on the envelope – it must be the voter who makes the mark – and have it witnessed by two people. Voters with disabilities may also choose to come into the elections office and use the accessible voting unit (AVU), which can accommodate most disabilities. More on accessible voting next month.

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