California is not typically viewed as a hotbed of voter suppression, and not just because it’s California. Over the past few years, its legislature has passed sweeping reforms to protect residents’ right to vote with the strong encouragement of Gov. Jerry Brown. Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra has praised these measures and sued the Trump administration for attempting to abridge “our fundamental voting rights.” But even as Becerra attacks Trump for disenfranchising Americans, he is voluntarily defending a California scheme that nullifies tens of thousands of votes on the basis of dubious handwriting analysis. How did California, of all states, wind up suppressing so many votes? The problem lies in the state election code’s rules for counting absentee ballots. All registered voters can choose to vote by mail in California if they want to; they need only request a ballot, fill it out, sign the ballot envelope, and drop it in the mail. Unbeknownst to most voters, however, is the stipulation that their signature on the envelope must match the signature on their voter-registration form. If it does not, election officials do not count the ballot.
Who determines if it matches? The election officials themselves, who have an utter lack of handwriting-analysis expertise. A forensic-document examiner testified to the ACLU that an effective signature comparison requires 10 samples “at a minimum” to account for variability. California election officials have two samples and minimal training. And yet they have the power to disenfranchise a voter on the basis of a single signature. Voters receive no notice that a signature mismatch will void their vote, nor are they alerted if their vote has been voided, unless they expressly request the information.
In the 2016 election alone, as many as 46,000 ballotswere thrown out in California due to signature mismatch. Asian Americans’ ballots were rejected at a substantially higher rate due to perceived mismatch; in four major counties, Asian Americans were 15 percent more likely than the general population to have their ballots tossed for this reason. In virtually every case, voters disenfranchised by signature mismatch had no idea that their ballots had been nullified. Nor were they given an opportunity to “cure” the loss of their vote by confirming their identity.