A federal judge in Texas ruled Tuesday that the state’s system of verifying signatures on mail-in ballots was unconstitutional and should be immediately corrected in advance of Election Day in November.
Judge Orlando Garcia, of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, ruled that the existing procedure involving verifying whether a signature on a mail-in ballot matches the one required across the flap of the carrier-envelope “plainly violates certain voters’ constitutional rights.”
“In light of the fundamental importance of the right to vote, Texas’ existing process for rejecting mail-in ballots due to alleged signature mismatching fails to guarantee basic fairness,” Garcia wrote, adding that the procedure is “inherently fraught with error with no recourse for voters.”
Two Texas voters, George Richardson of Brazos County and Rosalie Weisfeld of McAllen, joined by organizations representing Texans with disabilities, veterans and young voters, filed a lawsuit over a year ago arguing that the way state law allows local election officials to reject mail-in ballots based on mismatching signatures violates the 14th Amendment.
Though early voting election officials could compare signatures on file with the county clerk or voter registrar made within the last six years, the existing procedure did not provide voters whose ballots may be rejected due to a potential signature mismatch the opportunity to "verify his or her identity, demonstrate that he or she did indeed sign the relevant documents, or otherwise challenge a signature verification determination." Garcia, who was nominated by President Bill Clinton, ruled that the state’s procedure was creating a “severe” burden on voters and failed to give “meaningful pre-rejection notice.”
“In order to protect voters’ rights in the upcoming November 2020 elections,” Garcia ruled that the Texas secretary of state must issue an advisory to all local election officials within 10 days of his decision notifying them of the new requirements for rejecting mail-in ballots on the basis of a perceived signature mismatch during the current election cycle.
Voters whose signatures are perceived to be mismatching must be mailed a notice of the election board’s determination within one day, and, in the event that a voter believes his or her ballot was improperly rejected, the voter may seek to verify the ballot by contacting an election official via phone or mail, Garcia ruled.
If a phone number was included on the voter’s original ballot application, an election official must also make at least one phone call within one day notifying the voter that his or her ballot is pending rejection based on a perceived signature mismatch.
Texas offers the opportunity to vote by mail to voters who are outside of their county of residence during an election, voters with disabilities, voters 65 years-of-age or older, and certain voters confined in jail but otherwise eligible to vote, according to the ruling.