More than 800 people who voted by absentee ballot in Michigan’s August primary didn’t have their vote counted because their signature on the ballot envelope didn’t match the signature on file.
That’s not a big number when you consider that a record 1.6 million Michiganders voted in the primary by absentee ballot. But there were some big differences in the number of signatures thrown out by some local clerks, raising questions about the consistency of signature review across the state.
A larger number of erstwhile primary voters, roughly 1,500, had their ballots rejected for failing to sign ballot envelopes.
If you were among those signature-challenged voters — perhaps you were rushed, had a bad signing day, or your signature has changed over time — you might be angry. Maybe even hopping mad.
A bipartisan measure signed into law Tuesday aims to give voters a better chance at correcting such mistakes in November.
With just four weeks to go until Nov. 3, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state Legislature cut a legal loophole that allowed clerks to reject absentee ballots because of a signature mismatch without giving voters a chance to correct errors. Until now, local clerks were encouraged to contact these voters, but weren’t required to.
Now they are.
The signature re-do provision was part of a larger bill that will give clerks more time to pre-process absentee ballots before Election Day. It also will allow election workers to work in shifts counting absentee ballots to avoid fatigue, and requires new ballot drop boxes to have video surveillance.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and many local clerks had pushed for the passage of the election legislation sponsored by Benson’s predecessor, Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, though they argue it doesn’t go far enough to allow early processing of absentee ballots.
With Michigan a key battleground in the presidential race, state policymakers hope the signature measure signed Tuesday reduces the number of disqualified ballots in an election already filled with (often dubious) accusations of bias and fraud.
Absentee ballot signature matching is a hot issue in many states, as President Trump and Republican officials have assailed aspects of absentee voting as ripe for fraud. Democrats, meanwhile, have tried generally to remove obstacles to voting during the Covid-19 pandemic, with record numbers of voters loath to vote in person.
Disparities across Michigan in signature rejections
In Michigan, the volume of rejected signatures varied greatly among communities in the August primary.
Consider: In the city of Lansing, officials didn’t reject a single signature among nearly 19,000 absentee ballots submitted. And in Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second largest city, election officials rejected but one signature.
In fact, in 85 percent of Michigan cities and townships, not a single ballot was rejected for a mismatch, a Bridge Michigan analysis of a Secretary of State spreadsheet showed.
So how to explain places like tiny Sherman Township, in Isabella County, which disqualified 11 absentee ballots out of 702 total votes cast? There were 32 signatures disqualified in Bloomfield Township in Oakland County, and 27 rejected in Bedford Township in Monroe County.
Rejection rates were low in the state’s most populous city, Detroit, considering the volume of absentee ballots. Officials there rejected 46 ballots for signature problems out of more than 81,000 counted. (In the same election, more than 70 percent of the city’s absentee voting precincts were deemed ineligible for recount because the number of votes tallied didn’t match that in poll books.)
Sherman Township Clerk Denise Livermore told Bridge she was as surprised as anyone when 11 signatures weren’t deemed close to matching those on file. She noted that one representative each for the Democratic and Republican parties agreed with her that the ballots should be rejected.
“I flag them when they don’t look close at all,” she said. “This was the first time I ever had that quantity. When the actual signatures came back they seemed to be very different. They came in the last couple of days before the primary. I don’t know that I tried to get a hold of any of them.”
‘My mom signed it. We were in a hurry’
In Bloomfield Township, Clerk Janet Roncelli said she doesn’t understand how she could reject 32 signatures and big cities like Lansing and Grand Rapids have so few. From her experience, the biggest problem comes when spouses, parents or relatives sign a ballot because their loved one filled out their election choices but forgot to sign the outer envelope.
In one case, a first-time voter was in her office after getting a call that her signature didn’t match. Standing in the clerk’s office and asked to explain, the young woman didn’t blink: “My mom signed it. We were in a hurry.”
The other issue, she said, is that young people’s signatures can change dramatically as they enter adulthood, more so than for older adults. “Many of them have never taken a cursive class,” Roncelli said.
She said her office aggressively attempts to contact voters whose signatures are a clear mismatch, usually with excellent success. Though some people who request absentee ballots don’t provide phone numbers or email and must be sent a reminder by traditional mail.
Signatures “are the only thing we have to identify” whether voters are who they say they are, she said. The matching process usually takes less than a minute by comparing with computerized signatures on driver’s licenses, she said, adding “we’re looking for at least two letters that match those on the license.”
The signature feature of the law signed Tuesday won’t really impact her office, Roncelli said, since she and other clerks interviewed by Bridge Michigan say they already take seriously the duty to alert voters to signature problems.
While the new law requires clerks to contact voters if they didn’t sign their mailing envelope or if the signature is a mismatch, the ballot must reach the clerk’s office by 8 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 2 — the day before the election — to invoke the law.
Signature review — science or subjective?
In video and written guidance the Secretary of State supplies to local clerks, there are few details on how clerks, their assistants or poll workers, should judge the validity of signatures. Benson’s office suggests comparing the handwriting on the ballot envelope to the signature the voter used to apply for an absentee ballot.
The SOS manual states: “Determine the legality of the ballot by checking the signature on the absentee ballot return envelope against the voter’s absent voter ballot application and checking the ePollbook to confirm that the voter has not voted in person at the election.”
But a Secretary of State spokesperson told Bridge some clerks now use a version of signature matching technology that will evaluate how well signatures on ballots match with the voter’s signature in the Qualified Voter File. The technology only flags ballots for manual inspection that may not match.
Some clerks told Bridge they look for telltale comparisons of certain letters. If someone merely leaves out a middle initial or does or doesn’t write out a middle name, that’s not cause for disqualification.
In Grand Traverse County’s Whitewater Township, Clerk Cheryl Goss said she keeps an eye on how a voter writes the letter h.
“Do signatures degrade with age?” she said. “What doesn’t?
“But the way people write their letters — like h — doesn’t change. It’ll still have the same tail.”
Goss recalled one voter whose signature didn’t come close to a match. When she called, he told her his wife signed the ballot for him because he was out of town. Big problem. The voter said he expected to return home before that election to correct the mistake. He didn’t make it.
Traverse City Clerk Benjamin Marentette said his office had no signature mismatches during the August primary and just two that were rejected because voters forgot to sign them.
“When we can’t make heads or tails of it, we reach out to the voter to ask why the signature is different,” he said.
Sterling Heights City Clerk Melanie Ryska said if there’s a signature problem with an absentee ballot she’ll first try to call or email and if that doesn’t locate the voter “I’ll go online and Whitepage them.” Out of nearly 20,000 ballots in the primary, only five weren’t counted, she said.
“I talk to a lot of clerks and I don’t know any who don’t go above and beyond to try to resolve these issues,” she said. “Our goal is to get all of our voters to vote and we do everything in our power to make sure that happens.”
Earlier this year, Ryska was honored as City Clerk of the Year by the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks.
Experts question signature verification
Across the country, forensics experts who authenticate signatures professionally have questioned the efficacy of turning overworked clerks into signature authorities.
Patricia Fisher, who runs a forensics lab in San Francisco, told Bridge that confirming a signature can be fraught, even for those with advanced training.
“This is an antiquated method by my observations,” she said of the patchwork methods used by election clerks. She said when she has to examine many signatures in a short period, “after a while, you can’t make distinctions.”
“I was startled by my own reaction,” she said, “and I know what I’m doing.”
As with many aspects of absentee voting, President Trump has assailed election signature verification.
At a coronavirus briefing in August and in an interview last month on Fox News, Trump falsely claimed that Democrats had advocated for a federal law “banning signature verification.”
“You know what it’s about? Fraud,” he said at the briefing. “They want to try and steal this election because, frankly, it’s the only way they can win.”
In fact, the bill sought to require election officials to give voters the opportunity to correct or “cure” their ballot when they either forget to sign it or their signature is questioned.
Benson said provisions in the bill Whitmer signed Tuesday, along with efforts that local clerks and her office are making statewide, should help reduce the number of rejected absentee ballots next month.
A question remains, however, about whether a state judge’s recent ruling will be upheld if it is appealed. The judge ruled that absentee ballots postmarked by Nov. 2 will be counted if they’re received by the date election results must be certified — 14 days after Nov. 3. Republican legislators were granted authority to appeal the decision.
The uncertainty surrounding that ruling is one reason Benson said she is urging absentee voters to return their ballots as soon as possible. The sooner voters vote absentee at their local clerk’s office, in drop-off boxes or by mail, the more time clerks will have to inform those who screwed up their signatures.