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Mail in votes are validated by signature, causing many votes with signatures to be invalidated.

Illustration by Shannon DeLurio

By Courtney Gullett

Votes across Washington state are being invalidated for many reasons including out of date signatures.

Out of 558,032 invalidated mail-in votes in the 2020 presidential primary, 95,261 were in Washington state, according to an NPR study of state and state election offices. In Washington, incoming votes are validated through signature checking.
In the current election, 1,073 votes have already been rejected in Whatcom County, according to Vote Washington, which publishes a list of rejected ballots so that voters can discover any problems and “cure” their ballots. The number is likely to grow as ballots continue to be submitted.
What’s the problem? Usually, it’s the autographs. If voters can't remember precisely how they signed their cards — initials or full first name? middle name, too? — the law allows for that.

“A variation between the signature of the voter on the ballot declaration and the signature of that voter in the registration files due to the substitution of initials or the use of common nicknames is permitted so long as the surname and handwriting are clearly the same,” the Washington State Legislation website said. 

Sarah Henney, a member of a Whatcom County voter outreach group, said the main focus of voter outreach groups is teaching people how to vote correctly. 

“I spend a lot of my time educating voters on how to vote safely,” Henney said. “This comes in lots of forms. Getting voters to double check their signatures is key.”

Bellingham resident Andrew Graham’s vote was invalidated in the 2016 presidential primary. Graham noticed that it was not counted weeks after mailing it in. (Voters can track their ballots’ progress at the vote WA voter portal:

“I was a young undergrad and didn't care that my vote wasn't counted, but looking back, I can see how this system could disproportionately affect young people,” Graham said. “The validation of my signature came from the driver’s license I signed at 16. No one knows their signature at 16.” 

Graham also noted that prior to getting his ballot invalidated, he had no idea the signatures were used in this way. He since made the switch to in-person voting. 

Another option is to update your signature through the Washington Secretary of State website. 

Washington is one of the few states to use vote by mail before COVID-19. Oregon, Hawaii, Colorado and Utah also have mail-in voting statutes. 

There are pros and cons to mail-in voting, according to the Washington State Legislation website. Mail-in voting offers an auditable paper trail, as well as ample time to research to vote and higher voter turnout, and no polls to coordinate. On the other hand, mail-in voting requires material, prep time, high levels of staff expertise and a longer timeline for reporting results. 

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