During every election in Washington, tens of thousands of ballots are rejected because ballot envelope signatures are flagged as not matching how they've looked in the past.
In the Nov. 8 midterm alone, nearly 27,000 ballots were challenged based on signature comparisons by election workers, according to the secretary of state's office.
A new lawsuit seeks to ban such signature rejections as unconstitutional, pointing to data suggesting they're subjective, error-plagued and disproportionately disenfranchise young people, people with disabilities and people of color.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in King County Superior Court by three nonprofit groups that work to boost voter turnout: Vet Voice Foundation, Washington Bus and El Centro de la Raza. Three King County voters whose ballots were rejected because of signature challenges also are plaintiffs.
The 39-page complaint names as defendants Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, King County Elections Director Julie Wise and two members of the King County canvassing board.
Washington state law requires county elections offices to scrutinize signatures on ballots and verify that they match the signature on file for the voter.
It's a requirement aimed at stopping vote fraud — such signature checks are frequently cited by elections officials as a reason to trust the state's mail-ballot system is secure — but the new lawsuit argues the checks do far more harm than good.
The complaint notes documented cases of voter fraud are "extremely rare" in Washington and that "few, if any" such cases have been caught and prosecuted based on signature matching.
"Therefore, Washington's Signature Matching Procedure has disenfranchised tens of thousands of lawful voters for no discernible benefit," states the complaint filed by Kevin Hamilton, a Seattle attorney and election law expert who has represented the Democratic Party in election disputes across the country, along with three other attorneys at the law firm Perkins Coie.
While voters can "cure" ballot signature challenges by filling out a form, many do not and their votes go uncounted.
Between the 2018 primary election and the 2022 general election, Washington's signature checks invalidated more than 113,000 ballots, the lawsuit states.
"These voters did everything required of them under Washington law: They filled out their ballots, sealed the envelopes, signed them, and returned them on time. Still, their votes were not counted," the complaint says.
In the 2020 general election, voters aged 18-21 had their ballots rejected at a rate 10 times higher than voters over 40, the lawsuit says, citing state data. In the same election, Latino, Black and Asian voters found their ballots rejected at about double the rate of white voters' ballots. Active-duty military ballots were rejected at nearly double the rate of nonmilitary voters' ballots.
The lawsuit also cites a state auditor report highlighting problems with arbitrariness of the signature-matching process in a review of the 2020 election.
That report, released in February, noted that 10 counties it examined obeyed state law and rejected relatively few ballots — less than 1% of the 4.2 million votes cast in that election. However, auditors pointed out that rejection rates varied greatly by county.
Kaeleene Escalante Martinez, one of the individual plaintiffs in the lawsuit, described as a young Latina voter, was notified her ballot was rejected in three successive elections because elections officials flagged her signature as not matching the one on file.
When her ballot was rejected in the 2020 general election, Escalante Martinez completed paperwork to fix the signature problem, but her vote was not counted, according to the lawsuit.
"In short, she did everything that was required of her to cast her ballot and exercise her fundamental right to vote," the lawsuit says.
Her ballots were rejected in the primary and general election this year, too, the lawsuit states: "Ms. Escalante Martinez recently learned that, remarkably, for a third time in as many elections, election officials mistakenly rejected her signature on her ballot."
A second individual plaintiff, Bethan Cantrell, has a "chronic condition that makes writing and signing her name extremely uncomfortable." The third individual plaintiff, Daisha Britt, is described as "a Black, Native American and White resident of King County" who has a self-described "complicated signature" that has been repeatedly rejected.
Such signature rejections are decided by elections workers who receive some training, but are not handwriting experts, and must rush to verify millions of ballots in just a few weeks, the lawsuit says.
Halei Watkins, a spokesperson for King County Elections, said in an email that state law requires signature matching "to ensure a voter is the person who voted their ballot and is what all WA counties use when verifying ballots. The questions raised in this filing will be up to the courts to weigh in on and decide."
Derrick Nunnally, a spokesperson for the secretary of state's office, said in an email, "As far as I'm aware, this office hasn't been served and can offer no comment."
The lawsuit asks for a legal ruling declaring the state's signature-matching procedures violate the state constitution. It asks that elections officials be permanently barred from using ballot envelope signatures other than to confirm the return envelope has been signed.
Other methods of discovering potentially illegal ballots will remain available to elections offices, the lawsuit notes. That includes the regular checks of data from Social Security records, the Department of Corrections and Department of Health to look for dead or ineligible voters.
In King County, about 12,000 ballots with challenged signatures were still outstanding as of this week for the recent midterm election, according to Watkins.
The elections office notifies voters if their ballots have been challenged, and voters have until 4:30 p.m. Monday to fill out the form needed to cure the challenge and ensure their ballots are counted.