(CN) – The American Civil Liberties Union says California election officials may have discarded over 45,000 ballots during the November 2016 election without notifying the affected voters.
The ACLU sued California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Sonoma County Registrar of Voters William Rousseau, saying the state’s practice of tossing ballots when voter signatures don’t match is a violation of the state Constitution.
“By statutory mandate, tens of thousands of California voters, including petitioners, are disenfranchised each election without even knowing their fundamental right to vote has been usurped,” the ACLU said in its petition, filed Aug. 23 in the First Appellate District. California’s appeals courts have constitutional jurisdiction over cases of public importance that must be resolved quickly.
According to the ACLU, California’s election code requires election officials to reject vote-by-mail ballots if they believe a signature on the ballot does not match the signature on file.
The problem lies in the lack of handwriting-analysis training for election officials, according to the petition – a problem compounded by the fact that voters whose ballots are rejected aren’t told, meaning thousands of voters are discounted without their knowledge.
“This wholesale disenfranchisement of California voters without providing voters notice and an opportunity to show that their ballots are proper violates the guarantees of due process, equal protection, and the California constitutional right to have a properly cast vote counted,” the ACLU said in the petition.
Peter La Follete, the petitioner alongside the ACLU, is a resident of Sonoma County who cast a vote-by-mail ballot in the November 2016 election only to find out later that it was tossed out. He wrote a letter to Rousseau in July asking why his ballot was disregarded, and the county registrar replied that a signature mismatch was the reason.
However, La Follete said had he been made aware of the problem before the vote was officially certified he would have gladly come to the office in person to resolve any outstanding issues.
“Mr. La Follette has voted in every presidential election since he turned 18,” the petition says. “Voting is important to him because he appreciates that his vote can have a real effect on local elections and is a way to be involved in the political process.”
The ACLU says that La Follette’s situation happened across the Golden State, and the law requiring discarding of ballots disproportionately affects Asian-American and Latino voters.
Padilla’s office pushed back against many of the claims made in the petition, saying that California has one of the lowest vote-by-mail rejection rates in the nation.
According to Padilla’s spokesman Sam Mahood, “99.3 percent of vote-by-mail ballots that were returned in November 2016 were accepted and counted. Per a report by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, only nine other states and the District of Columbia had a higher percentage of accepted vote-by-mail ballots.”
Mahood also pointed to Padilla’s sponsorship of Assembly Bill 840, which would allow California residents to digitally fix missing signatures on vote-by-mail ballots.
Such updates to election law are important, the ACLU says, as nearly 60 percent of the votes cast in the 2016 general election came by mail.
The number only figures to climb in 2018, after California passed a law that requires every registered voter receive a vote-by-mail ballot via the mail.
“This is not a partisan issue, but rather the goal is to ensure that every voter gets his or her vote counted as more and more people vote by mail,” said William Donovan Jr., a partner at the law firm Cooley, which is assisting the ACLU in the litigation.
The petitioners want a judge to declare the specific elections statute unconstitutional while declaring that a ballot may be discarded on the basis of a signature mismatch only if the voter is notified first.
Neither Sonoma County nor the ACLU returned phone calls seeking comment.