The answer, it turned out, was that Mangeni’s signature on the ballot didn’t match the one he used when he registered to vote. Ohio, like 30 other states, uses signature matching as a fraud-prevention measure. Mangeni sometimes uses different signatures, and he didn’t recall which one he had used to register. Under Ohio law, election officials are supposed to mail a notice to any voter whose ballot is rejected, giving them a chance to correct an error, but Mangeni said he never received a notification. His name did, however, go into a spreadsheet at the Ohio secretary of state’s office, which is how the ACLU found it. Mangeni agreed to become a plaintiff in a suit challenging Ohio’s signature-matching law.
“I felt cheated out of something,” Mangeni told me. Besides, “it was irritating. Some of the people that won the elections, I didn’t vote for.”
If Mangeni felt irritated, a voter who has her ballot rejected in the general election, especially in a tightly contested swing state such as Ohio, is likely to feel something closer to full-on rage. A political scientist at Carroll College, working on behalf of plaintiffs challenging Ohio’s signature-matching law, found that 97 percent of rejected signatures are likely to be authentic—or, for every invalid ballot, 32 valid ones are thrown out.
Even in normal election cycles, signature-matching requirements result in many ballots being rejected. Hundreds of thousands of such ballots were disqualified this way in 2016—almost all, presumably, cast by voters who had done everything right. Rejections disproportionately hit certain demographic groups, including elderly voters, young voters, and voters of color, that are expected to heavily favor Vice President Joe Biden this fall. As voting by mail surges across the country, many elections, including the presidential race, could hinge on a process that one expert recently described to me as “witchcraft.”
Earlier this year, voting-rights advocates, Democrats, and progressive groups began a major push to make voting by mail easier, and to persuade citizens to cast their ballot that way. In the midst of the pandemic, they thought it was the best way to ensure safety and get votes counted. The effort worked: Vote-by-mail rates this year are expected to easily set records. But the push to expand mail-in voting also introduces a number of risks. While some of these dangers, including a “blue shift” of late-counted votes and disruptions to the U.S. Postal Service, have been scrutinized, less attention has been paid to signature matching, the single biggest reason for the disqualification of mailed ballots in 2016.
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“Everybody’s vote should count,” says Hannah Fried, the national campaign director at All Voting Is Local, a nonprofit that seeks to expand voting access. “If you’re an eligible voter and you voted, your ballot should not be rejected for a highly technical reason out of your control—because the signature was sloppy, or you cannot write in the same way you used to be able to write. There’s something fundamentally unfair about it.”