Selweski: Sloppy Signatures Could Block Michigan Voters Under New Proposal

July 05, 2021, 11:30 PM by  Chad Selweski

(Posed photo: DepositPhotos)

As if the Legislature’s wobbly attempt to overhaul voting rules hadn’t already gone off the rails, a new bill could create an unfair Election Day disadvantage for those with sloppy penmanship. 

A proposed ID requirement would require that the way voters sign in at their precincts matches their signature on file. How could a volunteer election worker without expertise compare two squiggly bundles of scrawl and quickly determine if they match? 

Those who fail the proposed autograph test could get pushed aside for insufficient proof of identity. As someone who rarely writes his haphazard signature in the same way each time, I object. I have the right to write sloppily without losing my right to vote under Republicans' latest election plan. 

This nonsensical scribbling challenge is one of many voting restrictions proposed by lawmakers in Lansing who claim they’re improving the election process. GOP legislation that is just days away from final approval could turn those with subpar cursive skills into second-class voters, though hesitation surfaced last week. 

It now appears the signature-comparison language could be dropped, The Detroit News reported Friday. That requirement wasn't in the original bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, and was added by House Republicans, Craig Mauger writes from Lansing.

In an interview, Barrett said he believes a consensus has been reached in favor of dropping the policy and moving forward with a focus on photo ID alone. ...

Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton Township, the chairwoman of the House Elections Committee, said the legislation needed to be "clarified." "The intent is that we want voters to be able to properly ID themselves when they go to the polls," Bollin said.

After Senate Republicans concluded that the fraud allegations and conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 Michigan election were entirely false – in some cases “ludicrous” – the Senate and House GOP is proceeding with a 39-bill package to tackle the imaginary problem of election cheating. 

To be fair, the legislation grants those whose signature is rejected a six-day window after the vote to make a trip to their local clerk’s office to offer proof of their identity – documents or ID cards with signature and address. The same applies for those who didn’t present a valid photo ID at the polls. 

Election Day vote not counted

But the bottom line is these voters' “provisional” ballot would not be counted on Election Day, based on a flimsy verification process that essentially suspects them of possible forgery. It would disenfranchise those who will be unavailable after Election Day, maybe due to a weeklong business trip or a scheduled surgery. Some won’t show for their verification interrogation due to disgust with the system. 

The Legislature’s move toward strict signature authentication comes after numerous studies and lawsuits across the U.S. have found that scrutinizing signatures to prove a voter’s identity is risky business. Voters’ rights can be trampled.

What’s more, in our highly partisan political atmosphere, imagine the arguments at polling places when a voters’ signature is vetoed -- disruptions that would further lengthen waits.

Rules for absentee voters have long required them to sign the envelope containing their mailed ballot. Signatures deemed a mismatch by election workers sometimes pass the test upon further examination. Court challenges to Ohio’s signature-matching law found that 97 percent of rejected signatures were likely to be authentic.

In Michigan, the number of rejected abseentee voter ballot signatures varies widely by county, as standards are set by local officials. 

The bills now in the Michigan Senate for a final touch-up would require election workers to undergo a training session in signature analysis, but professional forensic document examiners are typically trained for two to three years.

Hasty process invites bias

Forensic experts can take many hours analyzing 10 or 20 signature samples to reach a decision on authenticity. In contrast, the overworked poll worker will have seconds to make such a decision based on two samples. 

In addition, three groups of voters typically are victimized by signature rules: the young, the elderly and the disabled. Young voters rarely have much experience writing in cursive; elderly voters often deal with shaky hands or failing eye sight; the disabled, as well as those with injuries or a temporary medical condition, cannot be expected to effortlessly sign their names.

The prior signature to be used in Michigan for matching purposes comes from the state’s file of registered voters – usually the digitized signature on the voter’s driver license. So, consider this: A voter is renewing her license and after a long, frustrating wait at the Secretary of State’s Office, the final step is to sign a document. The voter rattles off a signature and quickly heads out the door. 

Several years later, that rather illegible signature on file is used against her at the polls, denying her the ability to cast an Election Day ballot.

Most of us go through life with two kinds of signatures – the “careful signature” we use at the bank, and the “sign the credit card receipt, please” signature at the 7-11. 

I imagine none us thought that way of life could someday cost us our right to vote.

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