Strong opposition to GOP request for signature matching on NC absentee ballots

More than 7,000 people wrote the State Board of Elections with their thoughts on the state Republican Party request to allow county elections officials to verify mail-in ballots by matching ballot signatures with those on voter registration documents.

Photo: Getty Images

Most commenters opposed allowing local elections officials to use signature matching, with hundreds of people calling the request an attempt to suppress votes.

The board will consider the GOP request Thursday morning. Lawyers requesting the change indicated they will go to court if the board rejects the idea. The elections board holds online meetings that the public can listen to or watch.

Lawyers representing the state Republican Party, a member of the Cumberland County elections board, and a candidate for Guilford County commissioner want the state elections board to override an instruction state Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell gave local boards in July 2020 to not try to match signatures on absentee ballot requests to signatures on voter files.

State law allows near-relatives and guardians to request mail-in ballots for voters, in addition to the voters themselves.

It is unclear whether Republicans want signature verification for guardians and relatives, and how that would work.  Guardians and relatives don’t have to be registered voters. Philip R. Thomas, NC GOP attorney and chief strategist, did not respond to emailed questions this week.

Voter advocates told Policy Watch last month that voter signature matching is unnecessary because the state already requires two witness signatures, or a notary signature, along with the voter’s signature on an absentee ballot.

None of the 27 states that have signature verification for absentee ballots require witness or notary signatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Studies of states that use signature matching have shown that it is unevenly applied, with some counties setting aside significantly higher percentages of ballots than others, and that younger voters and voters of color are more likely to have their ballots rejected.

Critics of signature matching in North Carolina told the elections board it would result in disqualification of ballots from disabled voters or voters whose signatures have changed due to arthritis, nerve damage or other ailments. Many noted that their own signatures have changed over the decades since they first registered to vote.

Some of the comments came from people with deep knowledge of how ballots are verified and counted.

Robert P. Waldrop, chief judge at a Chatham County precinct, said in an email to the Board that his own signature probably won’t match the signature on file with the local elections office.

“This is a foolish attempt to make it easier to discard ballots and to make voting more difficult,” he wrote.

“This is not needed based on my inside knowledge of how our system works and will result in wasted time, money and cancelled votes.”

Supporters of signature matching said it is important to make sure all ballots are valid.  Nearly 50 people who wrote the Board of Elections referenced the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C. think tank that wants limited absentee voting. Those commenters said that if signature verification software is used, it should be set according to Heritage Foundation recommendations.

Republicans who sit on local elections boards said they wanted to be able to compare signatures.

“Election integrity is very important and we should be able to use every necessary tool to ensure NC elections are free of any sort of impropriety,” wrote Republican Angela Hawkins, the Wake County elections board secretary.

“I am requesting that ANY county board member that wants to verify one or ALL signatures on Absentee Ballots to be given the authority” to examine the voter registration card against the signature on the absentee ballot, she wrote.

In the 2020 general election, more than 1 million people voted absentee by mail in North Carolina, according to the state Board of Elections, as interest in mail-in voting was elevated in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this year’s primaries, about 2% of voters used mail-in ballots, according to the elections board, with most voters showing up at the polls on election day.

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Strong opposition to GOP request for signature matching on NC absentee ballots