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How to make sure your mail-in ballot is counted

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Absentee ballots in Michigan can be disqualified due to missing or mismatched signatures, but local clerks are racing to alert voters to the errors so they may fix or "cure" their ballots and get them counted.

Under a new law, clerks are required to notify voters within two days if the ballot has a signature issue and is received before 8 p.m. on Nov. 2, the day before the election. Previously, clerks were encouraged but not required to alert voters to signature problems.

More than 815 Michiganians who voted in the August primary election by absentee had their ballots rejected because their signature on the ballot return envelope didn't match the signature on file, according to the state Bureau of Elections.

Virgil Anderson of Detroit fills out his absentee ballot at a satellite voting location on the campus of Wayne County Community College NW district, Friday, July 31, 2020 in Detroit.

Nearly 1,500 other absentee ballots were rejected because the voter failed to sign the ballot envelope at all, the election bureau said. 

Those disqualified ballots are a tiny fraction of the 1.6 million absentee ballots cast in Michigan's primary, but election administrators said they don't want to see any rejections for things that are so easily fixed.   

"It's just kind of heart wrenching when you know that somebody is taking the time to request the ballot and vote it and get it returned to us, and then they forget to sign it," Troy Clerk Aileen Dickson said. "And this is a thing that would invalidate their whole ballot. That's really disappointing." 

A measure signed into law this fall requires clerks to notify by email, phone or snail mail an absentee voter whose ballot had a signature issue — either no signature or one that didn't match a past signature on file. The issue must be resolved within 48 hours.

Several clerks said the new requirement won't change the practice of the majority of their colleagues because they had already been notifying voters of signature issues for years. 

"Because we want people's votes to count. And if we can't get ahold of them, then we can't count their ballot, and I would hate his signature to invalidate someone's ballot," said Trudy Hershberger, the clerk in Bedford Township in Monroe County. 

The signature verification process is part of the election security process, whereby officials compare the signature on the absentee ballot envelope with a past signature on file — usually a digitized signature stored in the state's voter registration database or on the voter's absentee ballot application.

"This is the primary way we have of knowing that the person we issued the ballot to is indeed the person who voted it and returned it," said Mark Miller, the clerk in Kalamazoo Township. "It may not be the only way, but it's the way we've done it for many years, and I believe that it works very well."

Due to concerns about the pandemic, more than 3 million people have requested absentee ballots in Michigan ahead of the Nov. 3 election. 

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has warned voters that, at this point, they should submit their absentee ballots in person at drop boxes or their clerk's office to avoid delays in the mail that may disqualify the ballot. 

Late arrival was the leading cause of absentee ballot disqualification in the August primary with nearly 8,600 rejected for this reason, according to state data. 

To ensure that election officials have time to review a ballot for problems, such as mismatched or missing signatures, clerks encourage voters to get their absentee ballots in early, so they have time to contact the voter if needed. 

If a ballot envelope is missing a signature, a voter may sign the ballot at the clerk's office until the close of polls, according to the state election manual. In case of a mismatch, voters can request to "spoil" the original ballot and fill out a replacement, but at this late stage that ballot request must be done in person.

In December, the progressive advocacy group Priorities USA sued Benson over the state's signature verification process. Among the allegations was that Michigan didn't have uniform standards for matching ballot signatures. The suit was dropped after Benson released new guidance for signature verification.

Signature problems are sometimes traced back to a well-meaning family member who signed in place of the voter without knowing that's illegal, clerks said. 

"You know, a mother in law signed it because 'we were in a rush that day,'" Miller said. 

Other times, the signature on file is quite old, as in decades old, and the individual's signature has changed over time, perhaps due to illness, injury or age, Dickson said. 

"Sometimes, it's a temporary change. We've had people that they're right handed, they broke their right arm, or they had surgery on the right arm, and they have to sign with their left hand," she said.

"So there's pretty simple explanations for why someone's signature wouldn't match."

Typically, the signature review takes a matter of seconds with a staffer scanning in an absentee ballot envelope, and the signature on file popping up on the screen for review. Slight differences are usually dismissed in favor of the voter, the clerks said. 

"You can usually tell, even if it's a little different. There's usually a match somewhere," Hershberger said. "If it's close but not quite, you might call them just to be sure." 

Miller's staff flags any questionable signatures for his perusal, and he does a "point by point" comparison, looking for distinctive flourishes, similar features and the overall appearance or slant of the line.

"If I don’t have any points of similarities, then three quarters of the time it turns out that it is the voter, and their signature has just evolved over time," said Miller, who's been a clerk for four years. 

"I don't care what your signature looks like, or if every letter in your name is there. I can care less," he added. "It's consistency. It's the way you signed your voter registration form is the same as your application is the same as your ballot. Then, we're good."

During Hershberger's 23 years in the Clerk's Office, Bedford Township has caught one person in the signature verification process who deliberately requested and signed an absentee ballot for someone else, she said. 

"It's very rare, but it happened in an assisted living facility," Hershberger said."When we called him to talk to him to see if he had signed his ballot, he said, 'What ballot? I didn't even request a ballot.' And the signature wasn't even close to his. It was very, very different."

The number of absentee ballots that were rejected in the August primary varied by jurisdiction, according to state data. Miller was surprised that his township had at least one ballot disqualified due to a signature mismatch, while a large communities like Grand Rapids reported none. 

"Maybe they are just very successful at contacting voters and curing those all," he said.

Troy rejected 32 absentee ballots in August for signature mismatch and 18 that were missing a signature, out of roughly 17,000 absentee ballots returned to the city. 

"Any of ours that still remain unresolved as of Election Day are situations where we’ve contacted the voter, and either we’ve left messages and they haven’t responded, or they said they’ll come in and then don’t show up," Dickson said.

Her staff contacts voters repeatedly over weeks to urge them to come into the office and resolve the matter. "We almost always can get a hold of people," Dickson said, noting people usually list their email or phone number on their absentee application.

In instances where someone is home bound and forgot to sign the ballot envelope, she has sent a driver from her office to take the ballot to them, Dickson said.

"We really go above and beyond to make sure everybody's ballot counts," she said. 

mburke@detroitnews.com