Sunday, July 21, 2024

Washington State takes steps to reduce ballot rejection with new signature verification law

Posted

OLYMPIA - Washington State is recognized for its effective voting processes, but officials say too many ballots are rejected because signatures don’t match.

“I think we can do a lot better in Washington State,” Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall said. “Updating how our offices reach out to voters is a simple step to ensuring both integrity and voter access.”

Signature verification is done to prove the mailed ballot was filled out by the person it was sent to, but too often, people change the way they sign their names or don’t sign their ballot at all, which results in the ballot being rejected.

Senator Javier Valdez (D-Seattle) introduced SB 5890 after reviewing statistics on ballot rejection rates in the state. The bill received unanimous approval in the House and Senate and now awaits the Governor's signature.

The report, conducted by the University of Washington, showed people of color and younger voters are the demographics most likely to have their ballots rejected. Ballot rejection rates among Black voters are 50% higher than white voters. Latino or Asian voters are also much more likely than white voters to have their ballots rejected. 

“If you are a younger voter between 18 and 25, in 2022 there was a 5% chance that your ballot had been rejected…when you compare it to, if you are 46 to 65 years old, your percentage was .8%,” Valdez said. 

Hispanic and Asian voters are also more likely to have their ballots rejected, potentially due to language barriers or complex names.

Voters of color, according to the study, were less likely to sign their envelope when compared to white voters, which they argue could point further to a language barrier. 

To improve outcomes, the bill mandates materials be available in English, Spanish, and any other language required by the federal Voting Rights Act.

It also requires county auditors to contact voters by phone or email if their ballot still needs to be signed or if the signature doesn't match the one on file. Currently, they are required to use first-class mail to contact voters.

“Removing the requirement of first-class mail, will result in a few things: tremendous savings, but it will also allow us to reach voters where they are, via phone or via email because that’s what people use these days,” Hall said. 

King County provides an online form for updating a signature if your signature has changed. Election officials advise people to submit a current signature before the next election, with the form due eight days before election day unless submitted in person.

Hall supports most aspects of this bill but is concerned that notifying people after every election could cause fatigue.

“We contact them a lot,” Hall said. “But if we were to contact them after every election, that would be five times this year, and we don’t want voters to get fatigued with us reaching out.”

The bill also instructs the Secretary of State to create consistent rules for verifying signatures across the state, and to develop a manual to train people on how to apply the rules so everyone follows the rules correctly. 

“This bill creates an opportunity for every Washington voter to gain increased education and understand the importance of their ballot signature,” said Calista Jahn from the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy and Governance. 

Under the new law, auditors also must create an outreach plan to educate communities about signature verification. 

In addition, the bill creates a work group with the Secretary of State, at least two county auditors, and a representative from the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy and Governance to design a uniform envelope statewide to be implemented in the 2026 primary. 

While some concerns about voter fatigue were raised, overall, there was strong support for updating outreach methods to ensure integrity and voting access.

After the Governor signs the bill, it will take effect 90 days after the end of the session.

The Washington State Journal is a non-profit news website funded by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

Comments

No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here