CONCORD, N.H. (CN) – New Hampshire can’t enforce a law that allows poll workers to throw out absentee ballots over penmanship, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
Calling the process “fundamentally flawed,” U.S. District Judge Landya McCafferty struck down the law that requires local election moderators to compare the signature on a voter’s absentee-ballot application to the signature on their ballot. If the moderator determines the signatures don’t look similar, the ballot is discarded.
“Not only is the disenfranchised voter given no right to participate in this process, but the voter is not even given notice that her ballot has been rejected due to a signature mismatch,” McCafferty wrote in the 49-page opinion.
“Moreover, moderators receive no training in handwriting analysis or signature comparison; no statute, regulation, or guidance from the State provides functional standards to distinguish the natural variations of one writer from other variations that suggest two different writers; and the moderator’s assessment is final, without any review or appeal,” the judge continued.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire challenged the law on behalf of three voters whose ballots were tossed in the 2016 general election. Filing suit in May 2017, the group alleged due process violations and disability discrimination. One plaintiff, a 95-year-old Manchester woman, is legally blind.
Variations in signatures are more common in the elderly, disabled, and those who speak English as a second language, according to the ruling. McCafferty also highlighted stress, medications, and a change in stance as factors that could influence a person’s signature.
In order to properly compare a signature, the plaintiffs’ forensic document examiner expert testified that he will normally review at least 10 examples of a signature to compare them to a signature in question.
While rates of voter signature rejection are low, the court highlighted a New Hampshire Senate race in 2016 that was decided by only 17 votes. The court’s analysis determined that “even rates of rejection well under one percent translate to the disenfranchisement of dozens, if not hundreds, of otherwise qualified voters, election after election.”
State officials also failed to prove how the current process prevents vote fraud, the judge ruled. Of the two cases of absentee-voter fraud they cited to support their position, neither was uncovered through the signature-matching process.
“We’ve said all along that people should not be denied their fundamental right to vote because of penmanship. We’re glad the court agreed,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire.
The New Hampshire secretary of state’s office did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment.