ACLU sues N.H. over moderators tossing absentee ballots with mismatched signatures

Monitor staff
Thursday, May 11, 2017

Three voters whose absentee ballots were rejected after town moderators decided their signatures did not match those on file are part of a lawsuit that says such action is unconstitutional and should be changed, partly because it unfairly affects people with handwriting-related disabilities.

“There is a high risk of error to the signature-mismatch process ... especially where that process doesn’t provide any opportunity to be heard, any notice, or a right to appeal,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, which filed the lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Concord. “People should not be denied their fundamental right to vote because of penmanship.”

The lawsuit targets a practice allowed under RSA 659:50, part of a number of state laws about elections. During polling hours, the moderator of the polling place opens each envelope containing an absentee ballot and compares the signature on the envelope against the signature on the affidavit filed by the voters when obtaining the blank ballot. If the moderator thinks the signatures are the same, the vote is placed in the ballot box; if not, the moderator puts the ballot aside and it is not counted.

Rejected ballots are listed on the Secretary of State’s website. “This website is not updated until after the election,” argues the lawsuit, meaning “it is too late” for the voter to respond.

The lawsuit states that the method is inaccurate and more likely to impact voters with disabilities that affect their handwriting, such as blind people.

The law “puts moderators – who are laypeople with no handwriting training – in the unenviable position of acting as handwriting experts,” the lawsuit argues. “There is no formalized statewide procedure for moderators to evaluate whether an absentee ballot envelope signature matches the signature used to apply for the absentee ballot.”

The lawsuit was filed against New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner, whose office oversees elections. Gardner declined to comment Wednesday as he had not seen the lawsuit, noting only that the process of comparing signatures has not changed in many decades. The state law establishing the procedure was codified in 1979, and existed before then.

The lawsuit names three people who say their absentee ballots were rejected in the 2016 general election: Mary Saucedo, 94, of Manchester, who is blind and gets assistance filling out ballots; Maureen Heard of Derry, who was out of town on polling day; and Thomas Fitzpatrick of New Hampton, who was also out of town on polling day. The suit says none were aware their ballot had been rejected until approached by the ACLU.

The suit says that over the past five years “more than 500” voters have had absentee ballots rejected because of questions about the signature.

It asks that the law regarding comparison of signatures be declared unconstitutional and that the state be enjoined from enforcing it. It also asks that all ballots voided under the procedure in the 2016 general election be counted.

It does not suggest an alterative procedure. Bissonnette said the ACLU believes voters should be notified of disallowed absentee ballots in time to respond before the final tally is given.

During the 2016 general election, 75,305 voters cast absentee ballots in New Hampshire, about 10 percent of the total 755,850 ballots cast.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)