The NC Board of Elections, in a 3-2 party line vote, rejected state Republicans’ request for signature verification on absentee ballots.
Republicans wanted local elections officials to be able to compare voters’ signatures on their registration cards against signatures on requests for absentee ballots and on the returned ballots.
Instead, the board’s Democratic majority approved a declaratory ruling stating the opposite. They decided county elections officials don’t have the legal authority to verify signatures to determine if voters should receive mail-in ballots and if votes should be counted.
Stella Anderson, a Democratic member of the board, said allowing signature matching puts a new legal requirement on voters. “We cannot do that,” she said.
She suggested proponents of signature matching ask the legislature to change the law.
Tommy Tucker, a Republican board member and former state senator, said he would do just that. “I will make it my sole purpose in life” to codify signature verification in state statutes, he said. He argued that elections officials should be allowed to verify ballot signatures that are illegible.
Tucker said the state board’s decision won’t matter much longer because of a U.S. Supreme Court case that he believes will go the Republicans’ way.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a North Carolina case that would allow legislatures to set rules for federal elections that state courts couldn’t review. North Carolina Republicans are basing their argument on the “independent state legislature doctrine,” which Stateline called “a fringe conservative legal theory.” Stateline is an online publication of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
“The Supreme Court will have a ruling at the end of the year where we won’t have any say,” Tucker said, “that it will be by the Constitution, as I stated, the times, manners and places of elections are determined by the state legislatures, not the state board, not the Supreme Court, not an illegitimate judge.”
The state Republican Party, a GOP candidate for county office, and a Republican member of a county board of elections wanted the state elections board to override a 2020 instruction from the state’s top elections administrator that local boards should not try to verify signatures on absentee ballot requests.
In their request to the elections board to allow signature verification, Republican lawyers said it was part of local election officials’ job.
Republican member Stacy Eggers IV said the intention was to allow elections officials to check the signatures they question, not every signature.
“The presence of a signature on the registration card is an easy and accessible tool that the counties have,” he said. “Having that for their additional consideration simply builds trust in the system.”
Board Chairman Damon Circosta, a Democrat, said he was satisfied with existing safeguards. “We’ve got an extraordinarily secure absentee ballot process now,” he said. “To do this would introduce a level of uncertainty wherein some voters might be treated different than other voters depending on how they vote.”
Voters who want mail-in ballots must sign their applications and provide the last four digits of their Social Security number or their driver’s license number, as well as their date of birth. Near-relatives and guardians can request absentee ballots for voters. Near-relatives and guardians making those requests don’t have to be registered voters.
Voters sign their returned ballots, and those ballots must also have signatures of two witnesses or a notary.
Twenty-seven states require signature matching on absentee ballots, but none of those states require witness or notary signatures, Policy Watch has reported.
The state elections board received more than 7,000 comments on the Republican proposal, with most asking the board to deny the request. Some called it an attempt a voter suppression, while others said it would harm older or disabled voters, and those whose signatures have changed due to illness.
Commenters who supported the request said signature verification is needed to prevent dilution of legitimate votes.
Studies of signature-matching in other states have found that some counties set aside significantly larger proportions of return ballots than other counties. In addition, young voters and voters of color were more likely to have their absentee ballots rejected, and were less likely to have issues addressed before vote counting deadlines, Policy Watch has reported.
In their written request to allow signature matching, Republican lawyers suggested they would go to court if the elections board rejected it.
In a statement released Thursday, North Carolina GOP Chairman Michael Whatley said county elections boards are required to validate the identities of absentee voters, and the state board’s decision is contrary to state law.
“”We are stunned that the Democrats on the State Board of Elections are blocking the use of signature verification on absentee ballots,” he wrote. “The North Carolina Republican Party will explore every option at our disposal to restore voter signature verification as an essential component of our County Boards’ efforts to protect the integrity of North Carolina elections.”
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, said in a statement that elections board was right to reject “an unwise request.”
“Our state’s process for voting absentee is secure and it’s proven to work,” Phillips wrote.
“But now the NC Republican Party wants to change that by placing an unfair burden on the growing number of North Carolinians who opt to vote absentee by mail,” Phillips went on. “This unnecessary ‘signature-match’ process would give county boards of elections the ability to look at someone’s signature on their voter registration form – possibly filled out decades before – and compare it to the voter’s current signature on their absentee ballot. That would leave it to human error and unequal standards to decide which ballots should count.
“The push by the NC Republican Party to impose a deeply flawed ‘signature-match’ process would be a strain on North Carolina voters and election administrators, while doing nothing to strengthen our voting system. The State Board of Elections made the correct call for voters by denying this request.”