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electionlineWeekly — December 18, 2014

Table of Contents

I. In Focus This Week

The writing is on the ballot and petition and envelope
Does penmanship — good or bad — affect elections?

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“A signature always reveals a man’s character — and sometimes even his name.”

Everyone has heard the jokes about doctor’s signatures and handwriting that looks like chicken scratch but what impact does your questionable handwriting have on your ability to participate in democracy?

It depends.

For instance, according to Neal Kelley, registrar of voters for Orange County, California and president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, poor penmanship has not played a major role as the county moves more and more to vote-by-mail ballots.

“It is not a significant problem, “ Kelley said. “While there are difficulties on occasion our rejection rate of ballots due to an inability to decipher some bit of information on the ballot was zero for the 2014 general election. We do, of course, have to sometimes contact the voter to clarify information and/or deal with signature issues.”

Kelley noted that California law is pretty clear on the governance of the issue and recent changes have given local elections officials more options to verify signatures.

“So now we could use address residency cards, voter notification cards, etc. — essentially anything we have on file with the voter's signature,” Kelley said. “This provides additional options to verify a signature of a voter that may have changed over time.“

Up the coast in Washington State where many voters have been voting by mail since the 1990s, Secretary of State Kim Wyman said that voters seem to understand the importance of signing ballots legibly.

“Penmanship oddly enough is pretty consistent throughout a person’s life, and election administrators get training from signature experts at our State Patrol,” Wyman said. “Sometimes we’ll see our younger voters change their signature style when they move into a professional setting, and sometimes our older voters’ handwriting will change due to illness, arthritis, stroke or something like that. We then work with them on a new signature.”

In Oregon, the state contacted about 13,000 voters whose signatures on their vote-by-mail ballot did not match a signature the state had on file.

According to the Tony Green, spokesman for the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, less than 1 percent of the 1.5 million ballots cast were not initially counted because the signature didn't match or the voter did not sign the envelope.

Ultimately about 66 percent of the 13,000 voters corrected their signature problems.

That did not stop a group of activists from suing the state during the GMO ballot initiative recount. The activists challenged about 4,600 ballots. Their attorneys argued that that is not part of Oregon law that a voter signature on ballots match registration cards. A Multnomah County judge denied the suit.

Of course, it’s not just signatures on vote-by-mail ballots where handwriting comes into play. There are also write-in campaigns and in many states, ballot initiatives. Kelley noted that penmanship is definitely more of an issue with initiatives.

“This is definitely more of a problem for us than on VBMs,” Kelley said. “These are much ‘messier’ than VBMs – many times because voters are moving much quicker when signing a petition. I don't have rejection rates for you but I can tell you anecdotally that this is more of a problem.”

In 2010, Alaska conducted a write-in election for U.S. Senate. While the election was plagued with litigation, Director of Elections Gail Fenumiai said that penmanship wasn’t really the issue as obviously incorrect spelling of candidates’ names.

“Penmanship only mattered to the extent that you could read what was written,” Fenumiai said, who was responsible for reviewing any questionable ballots. “I was the one to look at any questions or challenged ballots and I recall very few, if any at all.”

Following the election, legislation was introduced giving voters the benefit of the doubt when writing in a candidate’s name.

Up till now, anecdotally, penmanship has not been a major issue for elections officials, however with the introduction of the Common Core educational standards that did not include cursive writing as part of the core, and with people writing — as opposed to typing — less and less, there are concerns about the future.

Lori Augino, Washington state elections director, said next-gen verification methods are on her radar screen, especially as she works with FVAP, Council of State Governments, Pew and others in the field.

“It’s a good thing to be talking about,” she said.  “We are not feeling an urgency about it right now, but we need to look at what solutions from technology might give us in the next 10 years. Working with our military voters looks like a good place to start.

“The challenges will get greater as we have more and more students who reach 18 and have not learned to sign their name.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, while several states have introduced legislation requiring cursive writing as part of the curriculum, only four states — Idaho, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee — have actually approved such legislation in varying forms.

Wyman said she’s sorry to see some schools not providing instruction in cursive handwriting and would support a mandate for that.

Oh and for those who may be inclined to celebrate, National Handwriting Day 2015 will be celebrated January 23.

Editor’s Note: electionlineWeekly will not publish on December 25 or January 1, 2015. We will however publish our much anticipated What’s In and Out 2015 on Wednesday, December 31, 2014. We’ll be back to our regularly weekly schedule on January 8, 2015.

Also, electionlineToday will NOT publish on December 25 and 26 or January 1.