How Georgia verifies signatures on absentee ballots

On the suite level at State Farm Arena, Fulton County election officials work to count absentee ballots on Monday, November 2, 2020.  The process includes machines that cut open the envelopes, people who sort the paperwork, scanning stations where the data is collected and boxing of the recorded ballots for transport to English Avenue where Fulton County's official count is assessed.  The physical ballots and the date will be transported on Tuesday after all absentee ballots are counted.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
On the suite level at State Farm Arena, Fulton County election officials work to count absentee ballots on Monday, November 2, 2020. The process includes machines that cut open the envelopes, people who sort the paperwork, scanning stations where the data is collected and boxing of the recorded ballots for transport to English Avenue where Fulton County's official count is assessed. The physical ballots and the date will be transported on Tuesday after all absentee ballots are counted. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Before election officials counted absentee ballots in Georgia, they checked voter signatures to help make sure that ballots came from the voters who returned them.

That verification process reviewed signatures on absentee ballot envelopes when they were received at county election offices. Then ballots are separated from envelopes to protect the secret ballot, leaving no way to link voters to the candidates they chose. The right to cast a ballot in secret is guaranteed by the state Constitution.

Another review of signatures on absentee ballot envelopes wouldn’t change election results during Georgia’s recount. That’s because even if more voter signatures were found to be invalid, election workers couldn’t connect those faulty signatures to a ballot after it’s been removed from the envelope.

Election officials have rejected 2,011 absentee ballots so far in this year’s general election because of mismatched or missing voter signatures, according to the secretary of state’s office. Voters returned a total of 1.32 million absentee ballots.

The rate of absentee ballot rejections because of signature problems, 0.15%, is the same as in the 2018 election. Two years ago, there were 454 absentee rejections because of signature issues out of 284,000 absentee ballots cast.

Election workers verify signatures on absentee ballot envelopes and absentee ballot applications by comparing them to the signatures that voters used when they registered. Those original signatures are stored in county election computers, either from when they signed up to vote at driver’s license offices or from paper registration forms.

The signature matching process must be open to public view under Georgia law.

“We’ve strengthened signature match. We did GBI training with county elections directors to show them how to do this better,” said Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s voting system manager. “We are taking a lot more steps to secure the vote on this front than it has previously been done in state history.”

The state’s online absentee ballot application website doesn’t check signatures, but only voters whose driver’s license information is linked to their voter registrations can use it. Matching voters to their driver’s license number confirms their identity, Sterling said. Other registered voters must submit paper absentee ballot applications.

A settlement between the secretary of state’s office and the Democratic Party has come under attack by President Trump and a federal lawsuit.

That settlement required county election officials to quickly notify voters of their absentee ballot being rejected, giving them until the Friday after Election Day to prove their identities.

In addition, election workers must consult with two of their peers before rejecting absentee ballot because of mismatched signatures, according to the settlement. The federal lawsuit objected to that provision, arguing that it needed to be approved by the Georgia General Assembly rather than in court.

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