N.C. election officials will consider a signature-matching proposal for mail-in ballots

The North Carolina State Board of Elections will consider a proposal that would authorize county boards of elections to accept or reject mail-in ballots based on whether a voter’s signature matches the one on their voter registration.

The nine-page proposal was submitted by the North Carolina Republican Party and will be discussed during a virtual meeting set for 9:30 a.m. on Thursday.

Proponents say the change is needed to prevent voter fraud, which has been proven to be rare in U.S. elections.

Opponents take a different view, insisting that safeguards are already in place in North Carolina to protect the integrity of mail-in ballots. They further worry that signature matching could be used to throw out legitimate votes, disproportionately impacting voters of color.

What’s at stake: Of the 5.5 million ballots cast in North Carolina in 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 1 million were sent by mail.

North Carolina State Board of Elections

Is signature-matching required?

That’s up for debate.

State law requires that a mail-in ballot be signed “by the voter personally.” The ballot also must be signed by two witnesses or a notary.

In pressing for change, the state GOP referenced a 2020 memo written by State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson-Bell. The memo, addressed to county boards of elections, said mail-in ballots should be accepted if signatures “[appear] to be made by the voter or their near relative or legal guardian” and “should not be compared with the voter’s signature on file because this is not required by North Carolina law.”

Patrick Gannon, public information director for the state board, said in an email to QCity Metro that, “Absent clear evidence to the contrary, the county board shall presume the voter’s signature is that of the voter, even if the signature is illegible.”

Gannon also wrote that “county boards of elections are frequently reminded by State Board staff to report any irregularities or possible fraud to the State Board Investigations Division.”

The state GOP, on the “Election Integrity” page on its website, said Democrats are responsible for “weakening election security.”

The state board currently is made up of two Republicans and three Democrats.

“It is inadequate for a county board of elections to not exhaust all available resources” to verify signatures, state Republicans said in their proposal proposal. “By instructing the county boards that they should not [verify signatures], the NCSBE is prohibiting county officials … from using all available resources at their disposal to ensure they are fulfilling their statutory duties.”

Republican Party officials did not respond to questions submitted by QCity Metro.

What’s missing from the proposal?

The GOP proposal did not include a proposed process for matching signatures. Nor did it present evidence of past voter fraud in North Carolina.

Andy Jackson, director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank, said signature matching would “add an additional layer of security.”

Though rare, voter fraud has been reported.

In 2018, McCrae Dowless, a political operative in Bladen County, became the center of an investigation after he was accused of paying workers to illegally collect absentee ballots from voters in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district. It was later revealed that Dowless had ties to a Republican candidate.

Dowless was convicted of defrauding the government in 2021 and died at home earlier this year.

What happened in the 9th district, Jackson said, is what signature-matching is meant to address.

“There needs to be training, and there are software packages,” he said. “There’s a whole system that needs to be put in place.”

Jackson said election officials in Colorado and Oregon already use signature-matching software to confirm ballots.

North Carolina is one of three states that require two signatures or a notary to confirm voter signatures on mail-in ballots.

In a John Locke article published in June, Jackson said the state board will likely reject the Republican proposal.

“The current SBE leadership has a history of doing the minimum allowed under state law to protect election integrity,” he wrote in the article.

What groups are saying

The State Board of Elections has compiled more than 8,000 public comments regarding the Republican proposal.

One group in opposition to the proposed change is North Carolina Asian Americans Together.

In a press release, the group said signature matching might cause significant problems for “young voters, elderly voters, voters of color, voters with limited English proficiency, voters who are unable to sign their name and instead use an ‘X’ (an acceptable form of signature on a ballot), and voters with disabilities.”

In the 2020 election, the group said, Asian Americans voted by mail at a higher rate than any other racial group in North Carolina.

Other groups that have opposed the GOP proposal include the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, Southern Coalition for Social Justice, El Pueblo, Disability Rights NC, Common Cause NC, North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections, NC Counts Coalition and NC Justice Center.

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