A lawsuit filed last week in King County Superior Court is challenging the “signature matching” process used by election officials across the Evergreen State that results in tens of thousands of Washington voters having their ballots rejected and being disenfranchised every election cycle.
The suit asks that the “faux science” of voter verification be thrown out because it violates the Washington State Constitution. If plaintiffs get the relief they are requesting, election officials would no be longer use signatures on ballot envelopes, except to simply confirm that the return envelope was signed.
A total of 24,000 ballots were disqualified in 2020, and 27,000 and rising so far in 2022. In the last three election cycles, argues the suit, signature checks have invalidated more than 113,000 ballots from Washington voters.
“The impact is hardly neutral,” in the words of Kevin Hamilton, veteran election law expert with the Perkins Coie law firm, who filed the suit. The plaintiffs are a trio of disenfranchised voters along with the Vet Voice Foundation, El Centro de la Raza and Washington Bus, which seeks to energize younger voters.
“Active military, Latino, Black and Asian American voters saw their ballots rejected at twice the rate of white voters over forty,” added Hamilton. “Voters aged 18 to 21 had their ballots rejected at ten times the rate of white voters over forty. Asian-American voters aged 18 to 21 had their ballots rejected at twelve times the rate of white voters over forty. Black and Hispanic voters aged 18 to 21 had their ballots rejected at sixteen times the rate of white overs over forty. This is absurd and unconstitutional under Washington’s State Constitution.”
Election workers cases are charged with scanning millions of ballot envelopes under Washington’s vote-by-mail system. They are tasked with scrutinizing whether signatures match signatures that voters have on file.
The verification requirement has been election officials’ chief defense against allegations that the system is open to voter fraud.
“Few if any” cases of fraud have been uncovered due to the signature verification process, according to the suit, which names as defendants Secretary of State Steve Hobbs and King County Elections Director Julie Wise.
“Therefore,” says the suit, “Washington’s Signature Matching Procedure has disenfranchised tens of thousands of lawful voters to no discernible benefit.”
As to the disenfranchised: “These voters did everything required of them under Washington law: They filled out their ballots, sealed the envelopes, signed them and returned them on time. Still, their votes were not counted.”
The Perkins Coie firm has defended voter rights, and represented Democratic groups, in litigation from coast to coast. It recently persuaded courts in Montana to overturn efforts by Republican legislators to make it more difficult for Native Americans and young people to vote. The lawmakers had passed a trio of measures that outlawed same-day voter registration, said student ID alone was not enough to register, and outlawed paid third-party ballot collection.
Hamilton worked in Senator Maria Cantwell’s closest-in-the-nation defeat of Republican Senator Slade Gorton in 2000, defended Christine Gregoire’s 2004 129-vote win for Governor in Chelan County Superior Court, and worked the 2008 litigation and court pleadings that confirmed election of Minnesota’s former U.S. Senator Al Franken. He represented the ACLU in landmark litigation in which a federal judge ended the at-large elections of Yakima City Council members, a process under which no Latino or Latina had ever won a city council seat.
Hamilton was in Georgia after the 2020 election, defending Joe Biden’s narrow win in the Peachtree State against maladroit legal challenges brought by Trump allies. Perkins Coie is currently representing two narrow winners in Arizona, Governor-elect Katie Hobbs and Attorney General-elect Kris Mayes. Mayes’ opponent, Abraham Hamadeh, has asked courts to void the election.
The signature verification suit details the almost Kafkaesque experience of a young voter named Kaeleene Escalante Martinez, who had her ballot disallowed in three successive election cycles.
After her ballot was rejected in the 2020 election, Martinez completed the form to “cure” the signature issue, only to see her vote not count. Martinez saw her ballots rejected twice more in this year’s primary and general elections.
“In short, she did everything that was required of her to cast her ballot and exercise her fundamental right to vote,” says the suit, later adding: “Ms Escalante Martinez recently learned that, remarkably, for a third time in as many elections, election officials mistakenly rejected her signature on her ballot.”
Bethan Cantrell, a second plaintiff, has in words of the suit, a “chronic condition that makes writing and signing her name extremely uncomfortable.”
A “complicated signature” by a third plaintiff, Daisha Britt, has resulted in repeat rejections.
Until and unless the verification requirement is thrown out, voters must act to “cure” the rejection of their signatures.
County election offices notify voters whose ballots are challenged and have until just before certification to complete a form and “cure” the challenge. (For this election, that was 4:30 PM Pacific Time today, as certification is tomorrow.)
The lawsuit noted that election officials have other means to identify improper ballots, including checking Social Security records, and checks with the state Department of Health and Department of Corrections for dead or ineligible voters.