California elections officials must notify voters before rejecting their mail-in ballots over concerns that the signature is not authentic, a San Francisco judge ruled this week.
Current California election law allows officials to toss out vote-by-mail ballots if they suspect the signature on the envelope does not match the signature on file for the voter, without giving the voter a chance to respond. In November, the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Northern California and law firm Cooley LLP sued Secretary of State Alex Padilla, arguing the practice is unconstitutional.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Ulmer Jr. agreed and ruled Monday that rejecting ballots without warning violates due process. He ruled that voters must be given a chance to explain and correct any discrepancies so their ballot might be still be counted.
"Tens of thousands of people were being denied their right to vote because a government official was making arbitrary decisions about penmanship," Michael Risher, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, said in a statement. "Handwriting varies and a perceived mismatch does not give elections officials the right to refuse to count a vote."
The lawsuit, La Follette v. Padilla, was filed on behalf Sonoma County resident Peter La Follette, who cast his vote by mail in the November 2016 election, according to the lawsuit. County election officials did not count his ballot after determining his ballot's signature did not match a signature they had on file, the lawsuit states, but officials never told La Follette about the issue, as state law did not require them to.
La Follette learned his ballot was thrown own eight months later, according to the lawsuit, after he searched voting records online. An estimated 33,000 to 45,000 voters in California suffered the same fate as La Follette in the November 2016 elections, the lawsuit states.
Rather than preventing suspected voter fraud, the state law unfairly targets certain voters, the ACLU argued. Voters with physical disabilities or injuries may have signatures that vary over time. In addition, voters who speak a primary language that does not use Roman characters, such as many Asian-American voters, were unfairly impacted by the law, according to the lawsuit.
Sam Mahood, press secretary for Padilla, said the Secretary of State's office is reviewing its options and has no further comment at this time.
Ulmer Jr. said in his ruling that courts around the nation have invalidated practices similar to California's.
"The statute fails to provide for notice that a voter is being disenfranchised and/or an opportunity for the voter to be hear," Ulmer Jr. wrote. "These are fundamental rights."