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ACLU: N.H.'s Signature-Matching Ballot Law Is Unconstitutional

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The ACLU of New Hampshire is asking a federal judge to declare a state law unconstitutional. The state's signature-matching law allows absentee ballots to be rejected if officials believe the signatures on the ballot and envelope don't match.

The ACLU says the law permits hundreds of ballots to be thrown out, even though they are valid.

NHPR's Peter Biello spoke with Gilles Bissonnette, the legal director of ACLU New Hampshire.

Note: Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Why is the ACLU troubled with the state’s rules around absentee ballot review?

We’re very concerned with the state’s rules with respect to absentee ballot rules. In particular, it’s the state law that allows election officials that have no handwriting analysis expertise to reject an absentee ballot without informing the voter if they think there is a signature mismatch in the voter’s paperwork. But under the law, government officials never inform these voters when their ballot are about to be thrown out. There’s no notice or opportunity provided to these voters to cure, and that’s really the crux of our argument in this case—that this system violates procedural due process rights of absentee voters, and in fact, some courts have struck down on similar laws as unconstitutional, such as in California, Florida and Illinois.

A lawsuit was filed by three people last summer against New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner over this, now you’ve filed this brief. What is new with this brief filed yesterday relative to last summer’s lawsuit?

Well we’ve learned a lot during the past nine months in discovery in this case. What we’ve learned is that during the 2016, 2014, and 2012 elections, this law disenfranchised approximately 275, 145 and 350 voters, respectively. The three plaintiffs in this case are voters who lost their right to vote during the 2016 election, and that includes Mary Saucedo—a 95-year-old blind woman from Manchester—Maureen Heard—a 20 year military veteran from Derry—as well as Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick—a professor from New Hampton. I think what struck us the most, frankly, is in addition to the impact that this has had on our clients, is the impact that it has had on people with disabilities.

You say that the law is far more likely to disenfranchise people with disabilities. How would it do that?

Sure, so what we’ve seen from the documents that we’ve collected is among the absentee ballot applications collected from discovery, in discovery from 15 municipalities and the Secretary of State’s office, at least 33 voters out of 167 disenfranchised under the statute were disabled. Also disabled during the 2016 election, under this law, were a 97-year-old woman from New Hampton, an 89-year-old Korean War veteran, and at least 10 voters from nursing homes and rehabilitation centers throughout New Hampshire, including one from the New Hampshire Veteran’s Home in Tilton. 

What do you think overall about the process that these state officials use to throw out a ballot?

I think what we’ve learned is that the signature-comparison process that’s employed is really fraught with error, which is why due process needs to be provided. There is really no uniformity to how this statute is applied statewide. In Portsmouth, there were 23 signature mismatches, while in Keene, a city of comparable size, there were only 2. And in Concord, which is twice the size of Portsmouth, there were zero signature mismatches. We also see this lack of uniformity even within municipalities when comparing various wards. 

What’s the next step for this lawsuit?

They’re will be a hearing that will take place in summer, this summer, with respect to our motion seeking judgment in the case, as well as the state’s response.

Gilles Bissonnette is the director of ACLU New Hampshire. The ACLU is challenging the state’s practice of invalidating some absentee ballots if they think there is a signature mismatch in the voter’s paperwork. Gilles, thank you very much for speaking with me.

Thank you so much.

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Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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