Ballot checks vary widely across state
Seattle Times staff reporters
It never mattered much — until this election.
But the fact that one county in Washington verifies ballot signatures differently than another county has taken on more significance as the gubernatorial election hangs on a handful of votes.
A Seattle Times survey of counties shows that procedures for evaluating signatures are highly subjective and vary widely from county to county.
More than 3,400 ballots in Washington were rejected in the November election because the signatures didn't match those on file with elections officials. And counties excluded them at wildly different rates.
Signature-related rejections made up more than half of all rejections in Skamania County, about one-third in King County and less than 1 percent in Skagit. Some counties rejected no signatures at all.
While all 39 counties in Washington follow the state's minimum requirements to verify voters' signatures, many of them go much further. At issue are absentee ballots, which voters sign and mail in, and provisional ballots, which voters fill out when they go to polling places other than their own or their names don't appear in poll books.
Voters with signatures that don't match those on file with elections officials are not notified in some counties, while in others they're telephoned or even tracked down through relatives.
Signatures might go through four levels of review in one county and just one in another. Workers in some counties scrutinize absentee signatures to find six identifying traits, while others merely eyeball the handwriting.
This has created an imbalance in Washington that's potentially unfair to voters, said John Pearson, deputy director of elections for the Secretary of State's Office. "We have such an ingrained desire to facilitate the process to make every vote count," Pearson said. "Some counties have gone above and beyond what's required by law."
But in the record-close gubernatorial election between Republican Dino Rossi and Democrat Christine Gregoire, counties that have followed the minimum requirements have taken heat for not doing more, he added.
Political parties continue to wrangle for votes as a statewide hand recount continues. Rossi led Gregoire by 42 votes before the recount started Dec. 8.
The state Supreme Court last week rejected one of the arguments by the Democratic Party that counties have disenfranchised voters by handling mismatched signatures so differently. The court decision means that counties will not be ordered to re-evaluate thousands of ballots that were rejected for signature problems.
In the wake of the disputed 2000 presidential election, Congress and elected officials nationwide have called for more consistency in how ballots are handled county to county within the states. The concern, raised by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case that ended the Florida recount, is that uneven standards could mean someone in one county could have a better chance of having a vote counted than someone in a neighboring county.
Pearson said county-by-county handling of signatures should be addressed by administrative rule or by the Washington Legislature, which convenes in January.
"Consistency is a good thing in elections, as we are finding out ... if it means some counties have to stop things they've been doing or do more, that's the way it goes," he said.
Under state regulations, counties are required to contact absentee voters by mail or phone only if the voter forgot to sign the outer envelope that contains an envelope with the secret ballot. The county must ask the voter to sign a copy of the envelope and mail it back or come into the elections office to complete a new signature.
For voters who did sign the envelope but whose signature did not match the one on file with their county, officials have no legal obligation to contact the voter. But many counties do so anyway.
In this election, at least 11 counties — including Adams, Douglas, San Juan, Thurston, Jefferson, King and Pierce — sent letters to absentee voters telling them to sign another envelope and mail it back or sign a new voter-registration form in the office.
When the King County elections office sent a letter to absentee voter Liz Ungar Mintek of Seattle stating there was a problem with her signature, she was surprised and confused.
"Any human being comparing them would agree it's the same person," she said.
She was asked to sign the envelope again, but not knowing how she signed her voter-registration card years ago, Mintek had no idea how to sign.
Elections staff accepted her vote after she mailed an envelope with three different signatures, she said.
But Mintek said she would have been upset if she lived in counties like Snohomish or Whitman, which don't contact absentee voters with signature issues.
"I suppose it depends on where you live ... that just seems so egregiously wrong," she said.
Election officials in small counties often give voters extra attention, sometimes because they know them.
In Lincoln County, which received just under 6,000 ballots in this election, auditor Shelly Johnston said she knows one couple that usually heads south for the winter. So when their absentee ballot came back to the county as undeliverable, she called the couple's daughter and got a forwarding address.
Another voter, a young woman whose signature had changed while she was away at law school, signed a new registration card after Johnston contacted her family on the hunch that "Martha" had simply chosen to change the way she signed.
"I know my voters," Johnston said. "You know what their kids are doing. ... We talk about it at church."
In Ferry County, where all 3,409 ballots were cast by mail, every signature had to be checked.
If a signature didn't match the one on file, the county sent that voter a letter asking for a new signature. Those who didn't respond to the letter were given a courtesy call on the day of the election, said Auditor Clydene Bolinger.
"Our goal in Ferry County is we don't ever want to disenfranchise any voter at all," she said. "When people take the effort to vote, we want to make sure their vote is counted."
They rejected only one ballot for a mismatched signature.
In some counties, provisional ballots were treated differently from absentees. The state does not require counties to notify provisional voters about signature problems.
In King and Snohomish counties, officials didn't alert them. The Republican and Democratic parties, hoping to gain votes, stepped in and attempted to notify these voters, giving them a chance to correct the problems. King County election officials rejected 415 provisional votes because the signatures didn't match.
In other counties, including Thurston, Pierce, Pend Oreille and Jefferson, officials sent letters to provisional voters asking them to sign another envelope and mail it back or come into the elections office to rectify the problem.
Layers of review
Another discrepancy among the counties is how many steps they take in reviewing signatures. Some counties require a canvassing board to review all signature problems, while others rely on election staff. There is no state standard.
In King County, where about a third of the state's voters reside, election workers — not the three-person canvassing board — usually make the final call on whether a ballot signature is valid.
County Elections Director Dean Logan pointed out that the county processed more than 560,000 absentee and provisional ballots this year.
"Given that volume, it doesn't make sense that the canvassing board would go through each of those," said Logan.
The county this year rejected 1,976 absentee and provisional ballots due to signature problems. Of those, 735 are absentee votes still in dispute after they were incorrectly set aside.
Some counties require signatures to go through several layers of review before they reach the canvassing board.
In Thurston County, for example, signatures were reviewed by at least three people, including supervisors, to determine if they matched signatures on file. If at least one of the employees saw similarities, then the vote was counted. If they couldn't be certain of a match, they forwarded it to the canvassing board.
What's a match?
But what's considered a match depends on who reviews the signature and what they are looking for — such as slants, curves and loops.
Some county officials simply look at the signatures. Others compare just the first letters of names. And still others, like Jefferson County, try to find six points in the signature that match.
State law is vague on how a county must determine a match, stating that the county must look at the signature to determine if it matches the signature on the voter registration file. It doesn't provide a mechanism or procedure for the county to follow, nor does it require anyone to be trained.
"It doesn't require a three-point match or anything like that," Pearson said.
King, Thurston and Whitman counties try to find three points to match.
And yet, "Our canvassing board is really quite lenient," Whitman County elections supervisor Debbie Hooper said. "As an election official, I probably would have rejected all of them. I'm a little more hard-core. They were giving more the benefit of the doubt that they were voters."
Election staffs across the state have received a wide spectrum of training on matching signatures.
Officials in Pierce, Jefferson, Ferry and Wahkiakum counties have attended FBI signature training during election conferences in the past several years.
In other counties, supervisors and longtime staff pass their knowledge onto new employees to decipher signatures.
"Staff training is on-the-job training," Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman said. "They are trained by more-experienced staff who've done it for several elections. They show examples, using real ballots and signatures on file."
Here is a sampling of counties and a description of how they handled absentee and provisional ballots in this election:
Pend Oreille County
6,262 ballots counted
In Pend Oreille County, where all ballots are sent by mail, voters had the opportunity to fix problems with signatures. Voters whose signatures on the envelopes didn't match those on file were sent letters asking them to sign another envelope and mail it or to come into the elections office and sign.
County Auditor Carla Heckford said the canvassing board accepted signatures when the first letters of the first and last name matched the scanned image. She said a telltale sign of mismatched signatures is the curve of the letters.
"People don't change the direction of the way they write ... your signature has the same curve for years," she said.
898,238 ballots counted
Each absentee and provisional ballot signature is checked by an election worker, who tries to find three points in the envelope signature that match the registration form.
If that worker determines that the signature does not match, the ballot is reviewed by a second worker. If the second worker agrees that the signature doesn't match, the ballot is set aside and not counted. If there is a dispute over whether to accept a signature, the canvassing board reviews it. The county rejected 1,976 ballots due to signature problems — the most in the state.
"I think there's a pretty high public demand that we hold those ballots to a strict standard," Elections Director Logan said.
When an absentee ballot is set aside, the county sends a letter informing the voter of the signature problem and how to fix it. With provisional ballots, the county does not attempt to contact voters whose signatures do not match.
113,994 ballots counted
The county sent letters to all voters with signatures problems because Auditor Kim Wyman said the canvassing board didn't see a difference between absentee and provisional ballots.
If there was a discrepancy in the signature, several layers of people studied it.
"Our signature checkers are temporary employees that work during high-volume season," she said. "They are looking for the slant of the writing, the tail of the first or last letter. If the staffer can't find three matching points it goes to a more-experienced elections employee. It's only presented to the canvassing board when it failed to pass three people."
The canvassing board factors in the age of the voter. For example, a very young female voter may have a flowery signature, then go to college or become a professional and have a different signature, Wyman said.
91,497 ballots counted
The county had no provisional ballots with mismatched signatures. Absentee voters with signature problems were sent letters asking for new signatures. In reviewing the signatures, the canvassing board looked at the upward slant of letters and even turned signatures upside down to look for similarities. They rejected 35 absentee ballots because of mismatched signatures.
5,204 ballots counted
Elections staff sent letters and even called voters to make sure provisional and absentee voters were aware of problems with their signatures.
"We make phone calls if necessary," elections administrator Heidi Hunt said. "We ask if they received an absentee ballot, and if they did, whether they returned it."
18,772 ballots counted
County staff have taken advantage of FBI training on signature matching in the past.
"We try to look for six points," County Auditor Donna Eldridge said. "We look at capital letters, letters in the middle and we'll look for other points."
She said voters benefit from the county being a small community.
"If the wife had a stroke and [the signature] looks a little shaky, we know what happened," Eldridge said.
18,119 ballots counted
When the county didn't notify voters whose signatures were in question, the state Democratic Party started calling voters to resolve problems.
Debbie Hooper, the elections supervisor, said the county is revamping the way it deals with mismatched signatures:
"We're going to set up a system for contacting voters [for the next election] so they're not all ticked off when they come in."
Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261
Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508
Seattle Times reporters Ralph Thomas and David Postman contributed
to this report.
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