This week, the state legislature is considering SB1241, a wide-ranging elections bill championed by Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa. Buried in this multi-pronged bill is a new and troubling provision that could ensnare thousands of Arizona seniors, voters with disabilities, students, and other absentee voters in surprise criminal investigations.
As any Arizona absentee voter knows, for your vote to count, you have to sign the ballot envelope. Elections officials then compare the signature on the ballot to the one on file to ensure the voter is who they say they are. If the signature doesn’t match, the vote isn’t counted. This is a normal part of election safeguards, in line with how most states verify absentee ballots, and generally results in thousands of ballots being routinely disqualified. In 2016, for example, 2,663 Arizona ballots were rejected because of a signature discrepancy.
But SB1241 takes this normal part of election security and dramatically heightens the stakes. Unless the voter actively contacts the elections office to fix a signature error, he or she would automatically and in all cases have their “ballot affidavit and related materials” referred to law enforcement. Shockingly, this means law enforcement could have access not only to the signed envelope, but also potentially the secret ballot itself, opening the possibility that investigation decisions may be informed by who the person voted for. No other state has such a provision.
This presumption of criminality, regardless of the intentions behind the bill, is disturbing, dangerously misguided, and will fall on some of Arizona’s most vulnerable voters. Signature verification is an imprecise process that balances attention to detail with the tendency of human handwriting to change over time—or of a careless signature to smudge, wobble, or warp.
As Tammy Patrick, a former Maricopa County elections official, said last year, there are countless reasons a signature may not match: “People had broken arms. They were signing with the other hand — that’ll change the signature right there. I had people that told me they had had a stroke; people who told me they were signing it on their dashboard while they were driving down the highway; they signed it on top of the blue collection box at the post office, or on top of their mailbox.”
Moreover, signature mismatches also tend to fall on four groups: senior citizens whose handwriting may have grown shaky, voters with disabilities, students and young people whose signatures change regularly, and voters of color. In 2018, a judge struck down New Hampshire’s signature matching law, arguing that “[v]ariations are more prevalent in people who are elderly, disabled, or who speak English as a second language.”
SB1241 ignores the messy reality of human signatures, assuming that every slip of the pen is evidence of wrongdoing. It replaces current practice—where election officials refer cases to law enforcement only when there is reason to suspect a crime—with a rigid and bureaucratic referral process that could result in thousands of unnecessary investigations after every election. (There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Arizona or any other state.)
If this bill passes, any absentee voter in Arizona who signs their ballot sloppily and fails to fix the error after Election Day could find themselves caught up in a criminal investigation. This would be a discriminatory burden on senior citizens, disabled voters, students, and people of color.
In a democracy, no voter should have to worry that messy handwriting will get them reported to the police.
Delaney Gomen is a data analyst at Protect Democracy. Ben Raderstorf is a policy advocate at Protect Democracy.