Dennis Belton, 30, is one of thousands of Detroiters voting by absentee ballot. (Photo by Ralph Jones)

People don’t often put too much thought into how their signature changes over the years but when it comes to making a choice in one of the most important elections of a lifetime, your signature can make or break your vote. 

For Detroiters who vote via absentee ballots, it’s important to know that your ballot will not be considered valid if your signature on the return envelope does not match your signature in Michigan’s voter file or if it’s missing altogether. 

The Qualified Voter File is part of the Help America Vote Act which requires every state to have a central voter registration file. The state Secretary of State office manages Michigan’s file. Each jurisdiction has the ability to identify its voters.  

According to Michigan state law, as of August 2020, clerks are now required to contact voters who submit an absentee ballot application or absentee ballot without a matching signature within 48 hours of receipt up until 8 p.m. the day before an election. In the case of this presidential election, that means Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. 

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So far, 3,874 absentee ballots in Detroit are spoiled, according to the Secretary of State, but it’s unknown how many were spoiled because of signature issues as they do not keep track of the reasons for spoilage. 

Signatures can change

There are many reasons that a voter’s signature can change but what is certain is that signature matching laws disproportionately affect the elderly and the disabled. Detroit is an example of a community with above average disability rates. Almost 16% of the population was living with a disability in 2018 and more than 13% of the population is 65 or older according to the U.S. Census Bureau

“It is also more likely that their signature looks different than it did when they first registered to vote,” Lila Carpenter, a paralegal at the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project, wrote in a blog post in 2018. “Some degenerative diseases or disabilities with periodic symptoms do not affect a voter at the time of registration but may result in tremors or other symptoms that change the way someone signs their name.”

It’s unfortunate because these very individuals are more likely to vote absentee, due to accessibility issues. 

According to Dessa Cosma, executive director at Detroit Disability Power, “In many ways, absentee ballots make it a lot more accessible for those with disabilities and our organization is encouraging people to vote absentee if they can but we know that even that is not totally accessible to people, especially those with low vision, blindness and dexterity issues.” 

Signature matching process

Detroit has 134 absentee counting boards, groups created to process and tabulate absent voter ballots, but the process of matching signatures is the same throughout the city and the state, according to officials at the Michigan Secretary of State.

Every signature is matched twice by human eyes—primarily the local clerk’s, although it may also be the deputy clerk or another designated representative of the clerk or approved staff within the office. 

First the signature on the application is matched to the one on file, which can be to either the one on the resident’s driver’s license if he or she registered through automatic voter registration or the signature on file from when the voter registered with their clerk. This process takes place before a ballot is issued. 

The second time the clerk matches the signature is once the ballot is returned, between the signature on file and the signature on the ballot. 

The approved officials from the city clerk’s office review signatures as soon as they receive the ballot. If there is an issue with a signature during any point of this process, clerks are instructed to reach out through whatever contact means possible, usually using the information for the voter in the qualified voter file, to let the voter know of the issue and hopefully rectify in time. 

“We notify the voter by mail, phone or with the information on file. If there is an envelope where the signature is missing, we contact that voter in the very same way and send an envelope so they can return it. No postage required,” said Janice Winfrey, Detroit City Clerk. “At this point we are definitely overnighting all ballot requests that come in and we ask that you return the ballot overnight to us”

Correcting an invalid signature 

This election in particular is quite personal for most Detroiters and the numbers prove that. As of Oct. 26, 169,341 Detroiters requested absentee ballots and 102,944 Detroit voters have already turned them in, according to the Michigan Secretary of State.

If a signature is rejected, voters have until 8 p.m. on Election Day to cure the signature issue. 

Voters can 

  • visit the clerk’s office and re-sign the ballot envelope or provide a signature. 
  • sign the form that is sent to them and either mail, fax or scan and email it back to the clerk’s office by 8 p.m. on Election Day
  • vote at the precinct on Election Day instead of voting an AV ballot. 

Alternatively, until Friday before Election Day, voters may make a written request that their absentee voter ballot be “spoiled” and have a new ballot issued immediately. A spoiled ballot does not mean rejected—it usually means that the voter has requested to cancel that ballot. This can be for anything from simply making a mistake on a ballot and requesting a new one or deciding they’d rather vote in person on Election Day.

Voters in Michigan can check on the status of their ballot through the Michigan Voter Information Center.

This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

Here’s a link to the Detroit locations of all the satellite voting offices and drop boxes. 

If voters have questions or need assistance, the coalition has set up an election protection hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE/ 866-687-8683. It is staffed by legal professionals from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, and on weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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