Judge Rules Indiana Can’t Toss Mail-In Ballots Without Telling Voters

The decision was handed down the same day another federal judge in Indiana held voters cannot be removed from the state’s voting rolls without notification.

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

INDIANAPOLIS (CN) — Indiana election officials cannot reject absentee ballots based upon mismatched signatures without first notifying the voter and giving them a chance to correct any mistakes, a federal judge ruled.

In her 44-page ruling late Thursday, Senior U.S. District Judge Sarah Barker found that the state’s method of rejecting vote-by-mail ballots based upon perceived mismatched signatures was unconstitutional.

“Indiana’s signature verification requirement is unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution insofar as it fails to provide any notice or cure procedures before rejecting mail-in absentee ballots for signature mismatch,” Barker wrote.

Barker, a Ronald Reagan appointee, reasoned that while Indiana voters technically have no constitutional right to vote by absentee ballot, state law allows for it and it must be carried forth in a manner that abides by the U.S. Constitution.

The judge pointed to testimony from an expert witness, who explained that determining whether a signature is valid is difficult because many factors can go into comparing two signatures.

“Based on this evidence, we find that, while the overall number of voters disenfranchised by the signature verification is not overwhelmingly large, there is nonetheless a real risk of erroneous rejection, particularly given the natural variations in a person’s handwriting,” Barker wrote.

Under current Indiana law, a voter can request an absentee ballot if they know they are going to be away or working on Election Day during the 12 hours that the polls are open, if they are a voter with a disability or are at least 65 years old.

The lawsuit challenging the signature verification process was filed in May 2019 by a group of Indiana voters and Common Cause Indiana, a voting rights advocacy group that applauded Barker’s ruling Friday.

“This is a historic win for Indiana voters,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana. “This victory helps ensure no Hoosier voting by mail will be disenfranchised by Indiana’s flawed signature matching law. Election laws should protect people’s right to vote and the integrity of our election system. Indiana’s signature matching law failed to do either, and wrongly disenfranchised Hoosiers. The court made the right decision to block its enforcement.”

Barker’s ruling was issued on the same day that another federal judge in Indiana found that voters cannot be booted from the state’s voting rolls without notification.

In that case, U.S. District Judge Tanya Pratt found Indiana was in violation of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 because the state’s system for removing voters from the rolls did so without notification and without adhering to a mandated waiting period of two federal general elections.

“If a voter is disenfranchised and purged erroneously, that voter has no recourse after Election Day. While the defendants have a strong public interest in protecting the integrity of voter registration rolls and the electoral process, they have other procedures in place that can protect that public interest that do not violate the NVRA,” Pratt, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote in her ruling.

The coinciding rulings out of the Southern District of Indiana serve as a rebuke of the methods the state has used to combat voter fraud, as both rulings found those methods violated the constitutional rights of Hoosier State voters.

Vaughn said the two rulings taken together are “huge wins.”

“The NVRA case means that no Hoosier voter can be removed from the rolls without notification and a waiting period – an important safeguard in federal law that too many counties wanted to ignore. And the signature match victory means that the due process rights of voters must be respected,” she said.

Vaughn added, “It is unfortunate that it took a federal lawsuit to make this happen, but we are grateful to the court and proud we helped make this happen.”

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