Federal Judge Strikes Down N.H.'s 'Signature Mismatch' Absentee Voting Law

Aug 14, 2018

A federal judge has struck down a New hampshire law that allows pollworkers to toss out absentee ballots if they don’t believe the signature adequately matches the one used on other voting paperwork.

In a ruling issued Tuesday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Landya McCafferty said “the current process for rejecting voters due to a signature mismatch fails to guarantee basic fairness,” because it gives moderators “sole, unreviewable discretion” to discard absentee ballots.

"It cannot be emphasized enough that the consequence of a moderator’s decision — disenfranchisement — is irremediable," Judge McCafferty wrote.

McCafferty also raised concerns about a lack of standards, training and oversight offered to pollworkers who are tasked with deciding whether to throw out someone’s ballot. Her ruling noted that the Secretary of State’s office “does not regularly monitor rates of rejection due to signature mismatch to ensure moderators’ compliance with the statute” and “has never engaged in a review of statistical anomalies related to the requirement.”

The ruling also addressed arguments presented by the state that the existing law is necessary to guard against potential voter fraud involving absentee ballots. McCafferty agreed that the state “has legitimate interests in preventing voter fraud and protecting public confidence in elections,” But her ruling also pointed out that the state only presented two cases of absentee-related voter fraud — whereas an estimated 740 absentee voters been disenfranchised in the last three general elections due to signature mismatch.

“Furthermore, plaintiffs point out that neither instance of absentee-voter fraud was uncovered through the signature-matching process,” the judge wrote.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit against the state in May 2017 on behalf of a trio of voters who unknowingly had their ballots discarded in the 2016 elections. One of the plaintiffs was a 95-year-old Manchester resident who is legally blind.

Gilles Bisonnette, legal director for the New Hampshire chapter of the ACLU, called Tuesday’s ruling a “huge victory for voting rights.”

“As the court acknowledged in our case people shouldn’t be denied their fundamental right to vote because of penmanship,” Bisonnette said. “But that’s exactly what’s been regularly occurring in New Hampshire elections for the last 30 years, and we’re pleased that this practice is going to end.”

The order means New Hampshire will likely have to revamp its training for pollworkers with just weeks to go before the September 11 state primary. The Secretary of State’s office did not immediately return a request for comment, and the Attorney General’s office said it was still reviewing the ruling.