Jim Brunner / The Seattle Times
In each Washington election, tens of thousands of ballots are rejected because the signatures on the ballot envelopes do not match how they looked in the past.
As of Nov. 8, only about 27,000 votes were solicited from signature contributions by election workers, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
The new lawsuit demands that they reject such signature rejections as overwhelming, show data that suggests they are subjective, error-plagued and disproportionately disenfranchise young people, people with disabilities and people of color.
The case was filed Tuesday in King County Superior Court by three non-profit groups that work to promote voter registration: the Vet Voice Foundation, Washington Bus and El Centro de la Raza. Three King County voters whose ballots were rejected because of signature challenges are also activists.
The 39-page complaint names as defendants Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, King County Elections Director Julie Wise and two other King County board members.
Washington state law requires county elections offices to scan the signatures on the ballot and verify that the signature joins the ballot.
The need is aimed at stopping voter fraud — such signature signatures are often cited by election officials as a way to protect the public trust’s mail system — but a new lawsuit argues the checks do far more harm than good.
The prosecution noted that cases of veteran’s identity fraud in Washington are “extremely rare” and “few, if any” such cases have been arrested and charged as a result of the signature adjustment.
“How Washington’s Signature Matching Procedure Released Tens of Thousands of Legal Voters Without Any Results” clarifies the complaint made by Kevin Hamilton, an attorney and election law expert who has drawn the Democratic Party into controversies across the country during the election. with three other attorneys at the Perkins Coie firm.
While voters can “surrender” their votes by filling out the challenges of forming a signature ballot, many are not and the votes do not go uncounted.
Between the 2018 primary election and the 2022 general election, Washington signed up to invalidate more than 113,000 votes, the lawsuit states.
“These voters did everything under Washington law: they filled out the ballots, sealed the envelopes, stamped them, and returned them on time. However, the votes were not counted,” the complaint says.
In the 2020 general election, voters aged 18-21 cast their ballots at a slightly higher rate than voters over 40, the suit says, citing the city’s data. In the same election, Latino, Black, and Asian voters cast their votes rejected at about twice the rate of white voters. Active military voters were almost double rejected on the ballots of non-military voters.
The lawsuit also brings the state auditor’s report as problems with the electronic arbitration process in the review of the 2020 election.
That report, released in February, noted that 10 counties it examined complied with state law and rejected relatively few votes — less than 1% of the 4.2 million votes cast in that election. But the auditors showed that rejection rates varied greatly by county.
Kaeleene Escalante Martinez, one of the individual plaintiffs in the suit, described as a young Latino voter whose vote in three consecutive elections was invalidated because election officials stamped her non-matching signature on the ballot.
When his vote was rejected in the 2020 general election, Escalante Martinez completed paperwork to fix the problem with the signature, but his vote was not counted, according to the lawsuit.
“In short, all that was required of them was to cast a ballot and withdraw their right to vote,” the lawsuit says.
Her vote in the primary and general election this year also claims: “Ms. Escalante Martinez has recently discovered that, remarkably, for the third time in as many elections, election officials erroneously rejected her signature on the ballot.”
The second single actor, Bethan Cantrell, has a “chronic condition that makes writing and signing his name very uncomfortable.” A third actor, Daisha Britt, is described as “a Black, Native American, and White resident of King County,” which is a “complicated signature” characteristic that is often rejected.
Such signature rejections are decided by election workers who receive some training, but are not surgical experts, and must compete to verify a million votes in a few weeks, the suit says.
Halei Watkins, a spokeswoman for King County Elections, said in an email that the appropriate state law is required “to ensure that the voter casts his vote and that all WA counties use it to verify their votes. The questions raised in this filing. Be in the courts to consider and decide.”
Derrick Nunnally, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, said in an email, “As far as I know, this office has not been assigned and cannot comment.”
The lawsuit claims that a legal ruling declaring the state’s promissory-equivalent policies violate the state constitution. Requests that election officials be permanently barred from using ballot envelope signatures other than to confirm the return envelope signed.
Other methods of finding potentially illegal ballots will remain available to election officials, according to the lawsuit. Including regular bits of information from Social Security records, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health, dead or ineligible voters are sought.
In King County, about 12,000 ballots with challenged signatures were still outstanding as of this week due to the recent midterm election, according to Watkins.
The election office notifies voters if their ballots are challenged, and voters have until 4:30 p.m. Monday to fill out the form needed to validate the challenge and ensure their votes are counted.