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The law that made voter registration easier by allowing drivers to register to vote at a motor vehicle office is making it harder for many New Jerseyans to have their ballots counted in this year’s mostly vote-by-mail election.
Several county election officials said registrations that include the signature created by using a Motor Vehicle Commission pin pad generally are not comparable to the inked signature on an individual’s ballot, leading officials to set aside those ballots. They then send out a “cure” letter that the voter must complete and sign, affirming that he did submit the ballot so it can be counted. But only about half of those letters are being returned, elections officials told NJ Spotlight News.
“I don’t know that we’ve accepted any ballot from a person that’s registered at MVC because it doesn’t come near to what their signature looks like, so we send them a cure letter,” said Evelynn Caterson, chair of the Atlantic County Board of Elections. “We make every effort to see if it is indeed the voter and it’s really easy if it’s a registration online or MVC because it doesn’t look like it.”
The problem is especially acute in this high-profile general election because voter turnout is highest in presidential election years and interest this year seems even greater. Adding to the problem is that every active New Jersey registered voter was sent a mail-in ballot and is being encouraged to vote this way to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Disputed signatures could lead to the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters. In the July 7 primary, which was also conducted chiefly with mail-in voting, about 35,000 ballots went uncounted for several reasons. More than 4,200 were rejected for mismatched signatures. County election officials sent out close to 16,000 cure letters; fewer than half of the recipients — about 6,900 — successfully returned a form to get their votes counted. Another 557 voters tried to correct their ballots, but their letters arrived too late to be counted.
‘Curing’ signature problems
New Jersey didn’t even have a signature cure process until the July primary. In June, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey and other organizations sued the state over signature verification issues. As part of a settlement, the state agreed to provide greater guidance to county officials on the matching of signatures and set up the current process to allow voters to fix a ballot that might be rejected.
The Secretary of State’s office has provided counties with a guide to the process of signature verification. County officials must send a cure letter to voters whose ballots are in question within 24 hours of the decision to potentially reject the ballot.
That process is vital to prevent the disenfranchisement of a large numbers of voters, particularly given the issues with MVC signatures and online voter registration — which took effect in the beginning of September — that allows people to use an MVC signature when they register.
Signature matching is the primary means of voter identification in New Jersey. When voting in person, an individual signs a slip of paper and a poll worker compares that to the voter’s signature in the poll book. Similarly, when a mail-in ballot is received, county officials check the signature on the certificate attached to the inner envelope against the one on file for verification.
Henal Patel, director of the democracy and justice program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said the signature validation of mail-in ballots can disproportionately affect a number of groups: older voters whose signatures have changed over time, young voters who did not learn penmanship and don’t have a set signature and those for whom English is not their first language.
“It also affects just about everybody, especially when you’re comparing them with electronic signatures,” she said.
An ‘overwhelming issue’
Nicole DiRado, administrator of the Union County Board of Elections, said she thinks that is the “overwhelming issue” plaguing signature matches.
“When somebody signs on a signature pad … people tend to do a quick scribble and it’s hard to find any consistencies in the signatures,” she said. “You look for it, you really look for it to see if it’s there.”
“Those folks who registered online who either used their driver’s license signature or created a signature from a stylus pen are not using the same technique when they sign their name pen to paper,” agreed Beth Thompson, administrator of the Hunterdon County Board of Elections.
She said the office puts ballots with a questionable match in a “quarantine file” and sends out a cure letter to the affected voters. When a voter returns a cure letter, the ballot is released to be counted.
The decision to question a ballot is not one that officials take lightly. Thompson said a staffer who cannot match a signature brings it to her and if she agrees, the ballot gets forwarded to the Board of Elections, which is comprised of two Democrats and two Republicans.
“It goes through at least two sets of eyes on one floor and then four sets of eyes on another before they get a letter,” she said.
Voters must respond by Nov. 18
Thompson said that, so far, Hunterdon County has sent out about 400 cure letters and received about 200 responses. Voters have until Nov. 18 to return a cure affidavit to have their votes counted.
Like all other things election-related in New Jersey, the likelihood of a signature being questioned can depend on where a person lives. In the primary, Hudson County rejected 7.2% of the ballots it received, while Sussex County’s rejection rate was just 1%.
Richard Miller, a Bergen County Board of Elections commissioner, said board members in the county with the largest electorate — about 670,000 voters — is “very liberal with the signature.”
The county brought in a handwriting analyst who spent several hours explaining “what we should look for and help us verify if a signature is acceptable or not.” So far, the county has sent out about 1,800 cure letters and received some 300 responses.
“We’re doing the best we can,” he said. “We’re getting on it right away.”
DiRado said Union County has sent out about 1,400 cure letters and gotten about half back.
‘A slow process’
“I think that’s definitely a much better response than we saw in the primary,” she said. “I think people are more aware and tuned in to what is transpiring, relative to the signature deficiencies this time around. It’s a slow process but it’s an important one.”
Patel, who was part of the lawsuit that led to New Jersey’s cure process, agreed.
“If this is a security measure we need, how do we make sure it isn’t disenfranchising anybody at all and the way to do that is a cure process,” she said. “I think our process is strong. It’s one of the stronger ones in the country. It’s voter friendly.”
But the process only works when voters are engaged. DiRado said she heard from some of the nearly 2,500 voters whose ballots Union County rejected in the primary who said they had not sent back a cure affidavit because they had thought the letter was junk mail.
“If you receive mail from our office, open it right away,” she said. “It’s important. It’s not junk. We are not going to reach out to you unless we have to.”
— Genesis Obando contributed to this story.