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Some of NC's absentee voters hit a signature snag

Thousands of North Carolinians have already locked in their ballots for this year’s general election, courtesy of the state’s postal voting period that began Sept. 5. But for some who’ve tried, compliance with voting law has been an issue.

By early October, elections officials had marked more than 80 absentee-by-mail ballots as invalid. In most cases, they simply lacked the signatures of two witnesses – a change due to the voting law enacted by the legislature last year.

Previously an absentee voter only needed one witness signature. Now if the voter doesn’t have two people witness as the ballot and accompanying envelope are filled out, he or she must have the ballot notarized. Without those signatures, the ballots go to the dead pile.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean those voters have blown their shot at the democratic process, said state elections spokesman Josh Lawson.

“Counties are not under statutory obligation to contact the voter if they return an incomplete ballot – but they do,” Lawson said.

Most of the mail-in ballot requests, and the completed ballots themselves, will be quickly honored, daily state voting data indicate. By the end of September, the state had certified more than 3,100 completed ballots out of more than 3,400 received.

The roughly 300 ballots in question at the time were either pending, returned as undeliverable, improperly completed, or “spoiled,” meaning the voter might have flubbed or damaged the ballot and had to request a new one.

At least 16 ballots arrived at elections offices with no signature at all.

In Brooklyn, N.Y., a North Carolina voter named Andrew Brown was dealing with an entirely different signature-based snag this week, which the Wake County Board of Elections says it has worked to fix. Maintaining a Wake County address while in Brooklyn, Brown has relied on the absentee voting system since the 2012 elections.

In late August, a few days before the mail-in period began this year, Brown sent the Wake County Board of Elections a ballot request. A month later, he was still waiting.

The reason: His signature on the request form didn’t match his signature from the 2012 elections. “I laughed because I have terrible handwriting,” Brown said. “I’m not surprised there has been a variation in my style from then until now.”

Wake County Elections Director Cherie Poucher said Wednesday that her office had verified Brown’s latest signature as authentic, following correspondence Brown said he initiated. He said he never received a letter the Wake County office sent him to inform him of the discrepancy.

But Brown questioned the checkpoint to begin with. “Why do they evaluate a signature at all? A signature shouldn’t function as proof of identity,” he said.

Poucher said absentee signature verification, while not required by law, has been a best practice at her office for years. “We have signatures, digitized signatures of the voters. And if we get something, anything – an application, a request for the absentee ballot or the absentee ballot itself – where the signature is very different than what we have on file, we go the extra mile and we get confirmation that that was the voter’s signature.”

She acknowledged that some voters’ signatures might change for any number of reasons, including medical issues that can affect handwriting abilities.

Lawson said Monday that the state office had not received complaints about signature verification. He did say his office had one record of a ballot denied in this election because an unauthorized individual signed it.

As of Oct. 2, more than 20,000 mail-in ballot requests were on file, according to the State Elections Board. Democrats were the largest chunk of that total, at about 41 percent. Republicans were at their heels, at 35 percent and making day-by-day gains. (The numbers don’t necessarily reflect a lead for Democratic candidates to begin with, as straight-ticket voting is, by law, now a thing of the past.)

And then there were the unaffiliated voters. While historically they haven’t participated as major parties have in off-year elections, they were bright on the radar with 24 percent of postal ballot requests to date.

Benjamin Brown writes for NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer.

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