A practice used by some, if not all, Arizona counties to verify signatures on early ballots may be illegal.
And that could result in election officials across the state have to change their procedures – and potentially result in more signatures on ballot envelopes being questioned.
Yavapai County Superior Court Judge John Napper, a Republican, said state law is “clear and unambiguous” that election officials must compare the signatures on the envelopes with the voter’s actual registration record. And that, he said, consists only of the document signed when a person first registered along with subsequent changes for things like altering party affiliation.
And what that means, the judge said, is it is illegal for county election officials to instead use other documents to determine if the signature on that ballot envelope is correct and should be accepted.
Napper’s conclusion is not the last word.
Strictly speaking, he only rejected efforts by Secretary of State Adrian Fontes to have the lawsuit by two groups challenging the process thrown out. Napper has not issued a final order.
“We look forward to the issue being litigated,” said Paul Smith-Leonard, spokesman for Fontes.
But the judge, in his ruling, made it clear that he is not buying arguments by the secretary of state that the rules in the Elections Procedures Manual allowing the comparison of signatures against other documents – the practice now widely in use – complies with what state law clearly requires.
And Kory Langhofer, who represents those challenging the practice, said Napper’s refusal to dismiss the case means “there’s nothing left to fight about.”
Central to the fight is a section of law which requires the county recorder, on receiving early ballots, to “compare the signatures thereon with the signature of the elector on the elector’s registration record.”
Langhofer, in his court filing, acknowledged that there is nothing in state law that explicitly defines what is a “registration record.”
But he argued that “most naturally” means the state or federal documents by which someone signs up to vote and provides certain other information. And what it also includes, Langhofer said, are updated state or federal forms.
Only thing is, he said, is the most recent version of the Elections Procedures Manual, prepared by the Secretary of State’s Office, says county recorders “should also consult additional known signatures from other official election documents in the voter’s registration record, such as signature rosters or early ballot request forms.”
In some cases, Langhofer said, counties are using signatures on early ballot envelopes from prior elections for their comparisons.
Pima County Recorder Gabriella Cazares-Kelly doesn’t go that far. But she said her office relies on much more than the voter registration record.
It starts, she said, with the fact that some people register to vote when they get a driver’s license. But those licenses, she noted, can be good for up to 45 years.
“As everybody should know, signatures vary by time and place and how much time you have,” Cazares-Kelly said. “You will change your signature a number of times throughout your life, going from adolescent to full adulthood.”
And she said even her own signature changes given having to sign “a hundred documents a day.”
So other documents can be helpful.
“We receive other notifications from the voters,” Cazares-Kelly said.
“Every single time we receive something in writing, it goes into their voter file,” she continued. “So every single thing that has a signature on it, it is another indication, another touch point, another opportunity to update what those signatures look like.
Cochise County Recorder David Stevens said his office also relies on signatures on other correspondence it has received from a voter. He also said that ballot signatures can be compared with those on file with the Motor Vehicle Division.
Fontes, in asking Napper to dismiss the lawsuit, argued that other documents listed as acceptable in the Elections Procedures Manual are within the definition of a “registration record.” And if the judge wasn’t buying that, Fontes said that phrase is ambiguous, meaning that the manual can interpret it as part of his duties.
Napper was having none of that.
“The language of the statute is clear and unambiguous,” the judge wrote. “The common meaning of ‘registration’ in the English language is to sign up to participate in an activity.”
And Napper derided the idea that other documents submitted by a voter fit that definition.
“No English speaker would linguistically confuse the acting of signing up to participate in an event with the act of participating in the event,” the judge wrote.
“Registering to attend law school is not the same as attending class,” he continued. “Registering to vote is not the same as voting.”
Nor was Napper impressed by the claim that the phrase “registration record” is ambiguous, allowing the secretary of state some latitude to interpret it.
“Pursuant to the statute, the recorder is to compare the signature on the envelope with the voter’s prior registration,” he said, quoting from the law. “If they match, then the vote is counted.”
The judge also noted there is a procedure in state law that allows county election officials, if they question whether a signature on a ballot matches the official record, to contact the voter. That allows the voter to verify that it is his or her signature and offer an explanation that could be related to age, illness or injury.
Langhofer represents the Arizona Free Enterprise Club. It has backed various measures to impose new identification requirements on voters while opposing efforts to restore the state’s permanent early voting list.
Also suing is an organization called Restoring Integrity and Trust in Elections. It bills itself as opposing laws changes in election laws that seek to give one group a partisan advantage and enforcing “constitutional standards against voting laws and procedures that threaten or dilute the right of qualified citizens to vote.”
Reuters says that that founders of RITE, formed last year, include former U.S. Attorney General William Barr, Karl Rove who was a top adviser to former President George W. Bush, and hotelier Steve Wynn.