San Francisco, CA — A San Francisco judge has held that California elections officials must notify voters before rejecting their mail-in ballots over signature concerns.
State law was allowing elections officials — who may not be handwriting experts — to reject vote-by-mail ballots if they felt the signature on the ballot envelope didn’t match the signature on file for the voter, without giving the voter any opportunity to show that the signature was genuine.
A lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, and Cooley LLP, argued that rejecting the ballots without warning was unconstitutional. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard B. Ulmer Jr. agreed, ruling that the Elections Code violates due process.
“Tens of thousands of people were being denied their right to vote because a government official was making arbitrary decisions about penmanship,” said Michael Risher, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “Handwriting varies and a perceived mismatch does not give election officials the right to refuse to count a vote.”
Nothing in the law requires voters to sign their ballot envelopes in any particular way, and elections officials were not required to inform voters that their ballots were being rejected or give them a chance to correct the signature problem.
As the Court explained, in California, thousands of eligible voters are disenfranchised each election cycle — with approximately 33,000 to 45,000 ballots rejected in the November 2016 general election alone due to a perceived signature mismatch. Asian-American voters, Latino voters, and voters born outside the United States are disproportionately disenfranchised by perceived signature mismatches.
“The Court’s well-reasoned order reaffirms the cornerstone of our democracy that every vote should be counted,” said William Donovan, Jr., a partner at Cooley. “The ruling is a victory for all Californians.”
The lawsuit, La Follette v. Padilla, was filed in San Francisco Superior Court.