INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A federal judge has struck down Indiana’s process of rejecting absentee ballots because of differing voter signatures, since the process didn't require voters to be told about such decisions or offer a way to contest them.
The ruling Thursday prevents election officials from tossing out mailed-in absentee ballots with envelope signatures that don’t match those on voter registration records unless the voters are given enough notice before Election Day.
The lawsuit filed last year by Common Cause Indiana only claims that the problem affected a small percentage of mailed-in ballots in the 2018 election, but the ruling comes as Indiana election officials are expecting a big jump in voting by mail this fall because of the coronavirus threat.
U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker found that county election workers are not trained in handwriting analysis to determine whether the voter signatures match as required by state law.
“While the overall number of voters disenfranchised by the signature verification is not overwhelmingly large, there is nonetheless a real risk of erroneous rejection, particularly given the natural variations in a person’s handwriting ... which might result from uncontrollable factors such as age or mental or physical condition,” Barker wrote.
The judge faulted the state for disenfranchising voters without any process for notifying them that their mailed-in ballots had been rejected, which would allow them to appeal the decision or cast a ballot in person.
Barker rejected arguments from state attorneys that the signature verification process was a reasonable step to prevent voting fraud.
Barker ordered Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson to create voter notification and appeal procedures for this fall’s election.
Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, said the ruling would prevent votes from being tossed out because of a flawed law.
“Election laws should protect people’s right to vote and the integrity of our election system,” she said in a statement. “Indiana’s signature matching law failed to do either and wrongly disenfranchised Hoosiers.”
The secretary of state’s office didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment Friday.
The Indiana attorney general’s office, which represented the state in the lawsuit, was reviewing the ruling and considering its legal options, spokeswoman Melissa Gustafson said.
Common Cause said records it requested from 18 of Indiana’s 92 counties found that eight counties rejected 177 mailed-in ballots during the 2018 general election because of signature mismatches. Only northwestern Indiana’s Lake County, which rejected 32 ballots, had a process for notifying those voters. Ten other counties didn’t reject any such ballots.