Virginia Republicans take aim at absentee voting in latest voter suppression push

It’s one thing to throw up roadblocks that make it harder to vote. It’s another thing to throw out valid ballots once they’ve been cast.

But that’s what Virginia Republicans want to open the door for with a bill introduced earlier this month that would place every absentee ballot under a strict level of scrutiny. From the Richmond Sunlight Foundation’s summary of the bill:

A rhetorical question, via Wikimedia Commons

A rhetorical question, via Wikimedia Commons

Requires the officers of elections to compare the signature on an absentee ballot envelope with the signature on that voter’s voter registration application. Three officers, including one representative of each political party, are required to agree that the signatures match in order for the absentee ballot to be accepted. If less than three agree, the ballot is given provisional status and the electoral board makes the final determination of its validity. Notice by certified mail is required to be given to the voter. The bill also requires absentee ballot applications to be signed by the applicant’s own handwriting or by electronic means, if such electronic signature is created by using a cursor, stylus, or similar device moved by the applicant to capture his signature. Any application signed by any other means shall be rejected.

That last part is significant because Virginia recently (as in, this year) changed their absentee ballot application process to allow for an electronic signature that is not created using a “device moved by the applicant to capture his signature.” Instead, it uses a much more secure method: asking for the applicant’s Social Security Number and drivers license number, and then obtaining the applicant’s signature from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

It looks like this:

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This is important because it gives the voter the option to complete the entire absentee ballot application process online, meaning that they have to send one less piece of snail mail and, therefore, are much more likely to actually cast their absentee ballot. As Waldo Jaquith, the director of US Open Data and the guy who built Virginia’s online absentee ballot application software, pointed out following the bill’s introduction, electronic signatures also happen to be much more secure than physical signatures:

While it isn’t that hard to forge a physical signature, it’s pretty damn difficult to come up with a matching Social Security Number and drivers license number unless you are the person rightfully filling out the application. This being the case, there simply isn’t any good reason to make electronic signatures illegal for the purposes of validating absentee ballot applicants. They make the process easier and they’re more secure.

There is, however, one bad reason to ban electronic signatures for these applications: In conjunction with the first part of the bill, which puts every absentee ballot up for partisan scrutiny, it makes it easy to throw ballots out in a targeted manner. If you make every voter re-write their signature, and compare every signature to the one on their voter registration application (which was often completed years, perhaps decades earlier), some of them aren’t going to match. That isn’t an indication of fraud or forgery; it’s just how signatures work. However, since this bill requires a Democrat, a Republican and a non-partisan board member to unanimously agree on every single absentee ballot in order for them to avoid provisional status, it would be all too easy for the Republican member to simply contest every signature submitted by someone with a name that didn’t sound — erm, what’s the word? — white.

But even if there isn’t any malicious or even partisan intent behind the law, it would still be a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare. For starters, signatures written with a computer mouse are obviously going to look very different than a signature written with a pen, which means that the bill would inevitably result in reviewers erring on the side of giving absentee ballots provisional status. Furthermore, even if the people charged with reviewing absentee ballot signatures were trained in handwriting recognition, the sheer number of man-hours it will take for three people to physically review every single absentee ballot cast in a given election (438,000 Virginians cast absentee ballots in 2012) means that the process is bound to be both costly and fraught with errors.

As is the case with Virginia Republicans’ recent attempt to reallocate the state’s electoral votes by congressional district, this bill is going nowhere as long as Terry McAuliffe remains governor. But again, this goes to show just how far Republicans are willing to go in order to make voting more difficult — and how little they actually care about making the electoral process more secure.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • 2karmanot


  • orogeny

    Unlike in-person voting, absentee voting has always been an actual source of fraud.

  • Comparing physical signatures is the stupidest damned proposal ever. Who here doesn’t have a few different variant signatures depending on how much of a hurry you’re in? Whose signature hasn’t changed over time? (Mine used to be carefully cursive, with all recognizable letters… now most of the time it’s 1st letter and a wavy scrawl after.) And whose signature doesn’t vary depending on whether you’re writing it on a piece of paper versus on a credit card authorization screen?

    (Moreover, it’s easy to forge someone’s signature and trivial if one happens to have an existing signature to copy from.)

    It’s also nearly f*cking impossible to make a mouse-cursor signature look exactly the same as one would with a pen and paper. Seriously, I can’t think anything more boneheaded than using a metric that depends on the precision of hand and arm muscle twitches and the functioning of a pen to positively identify someone.

    Obviously once again the Virgina GOPers are following the lead of the rest of their party members around the country: They don’t think Americans in general should have a right to vote, that it should only be extended to certain folks — namely reliably conservative Republicans.

  • nicho

    It’s going to affect a lot of service members who have to vote absentee and who might be voting Republican.

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