Michigan Sued Over Signature-Matching Law for Absentee Ballots

Voters wait in line in Southfield, Mich., on Nov. 6, 2018. (Clarence Tabb, Jr /Detroit News via AP, File)

DETROIT (CN) – A voting-rights group sued Michigan on Wednesday over its practice of throwing out absentee ballots that do not match election records on file, claiming it unconstitutionally disenfranchises voters.

Priorities USA sued Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in Detroit federal court, alleging the state uses an “arbitrary and standardless” voter fraud law to match signatures against records provided in prior elections. If an official deems that a signature does not match, the ballot is rejected. But the organization says the process is prone to errors.

The Washington-based liberal advocacy group says the method used to determine whether a voter signature on an absentee ballot matches disproportionately affects minorities, first-time voters, the elderly and people with disabilities.

“Under this signature matching regime, Michiganders who attempt to vote absentee can be denied the franchise outright based solely on an election official’s determination, during any one of the several stages of signature review, that a voter’s signature on the ballot envelope does not sufficiently resemble a signature that she provided to election officials at some point in the past,” the 27-page lawsuit states.

Benson’s office declined to comment beyond stating that it had not seen the lawsuit. Priorities USA’s attorney Andrew Nickelhoff deferred comment to Nickelhoff & Widick lawyer Uzoma Nkwonta, who did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request an interview.

Priorities USA spokeswoman Aneesa McMillan said that the law violates constitutionally protected voting rights as well as due process rights under the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. She noted that townships and cities use different methods of matching signatures, increasing the chances that officials would throw out ballots by mistake.

“There’s no question that this unnecessary provision has led to the rejection of votes cast which compromises the fundamental right to vote and also creates unnecessary barriers to the ballot box in the state,” McMillan said in a phone interview.

In a three-step process, election officials check the ballot signature against a reference signature they have on file. Even if the signature is ruled valid on the first try, officials can still reject a ballot in the later stages, according to the lawsuit.

Michigan does not train clerks and board of election inspectors on signature or handwriting analysis and signatures can easily change over time due to a voter’s age and other factors, or even the type of paper or pen that was used, the complaint states.

The law does not require officials to notify voters if they reject the signatures. To make sure their vote is counted, a citizen must take action before 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Criminal penalties are already in place to prevent voter fraud, Priorities USA notes, making the law moot.

In the 2016 presidential election and 2018 midterm election, more than 1 million Michigan voters, or a quarter of the state’s electorate, cast absentee ballots, according to the lawsuit. Officials have rejected over 1,200 absentee ballots since the 2012 general election, the complaint states, citing survey data.

Priorities USA says it expects the number of rejections to grow because voters chose last year to do away with restrictions on who can vote by mail.

“Because this growth trend will continue once no-reason absentee voting is implemented throughout Michigan, the number of Michiganders who are at risk of being disenfranchised due to the signature matching regime will increase dramatically absent relief from this court,” the lawsuit states.

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