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California mulls relaxing rules about ballot signatures

March 15, 2021 GMT
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FILE - In this May 12, 2020 file photo, a voting official helps walk-up voters in a special election for California's 25th Congressional District during the coronavirus outbreak in Simi Valley, Calif. California's Democratic-controlled state Legislature is considering making it more difficult for local election officials to disqualify ballots. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)
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FILE - In this May 12, 2020 file photo, a voting official helps walk-up voters in a special election for California's 25th Congressional District during the coronavirus outbreak in Simi Valley, Calif. California's Democratic-controlled state Legislature is considering making it more difficult for local election officials to disqualify ballots. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California’s Democratic-controlled Legislature is considering whether to make it more difficult for local election officials to reject ballots because a voter’s signature doesn’t exactly match what’s on file.

Voters who cast ballots by mail must now sign their ballot. Election officials then compare that signature to the one in the voter’s registration file. Election officials can disqualify ballots if the signatures don’t match.

But comparing signatures can be tricky because people don’t always sign their name the same way. It’s a bigger issue after the November election, when more than 86% of votes in California were vote-by-mail ballots.

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The secretary of state’s office issued temporary rules for the November election presuming a voter’s signature was legitimate, making an exact match unnecessary. To reject a ballot, election officials had to believe “beyond a reasonable doubt” that signatures didn’t match.

Those rules are set to expire in July. A bill before the California Legislature would make them permanent.

Any proposed changes to election laws this year will get more attention because Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is likely to face a recall election. The Legislature has already passed — and Newsom signed — a law saying counties must mail ballots to all active registered voters for any election called in 2021.

That means a potential recall election could be dominated by vote-by-mail ballots in the state where nearly twice as many voters are registered as Democrats than Republicans.

But if the bill involving signatures becomes law, it would not take effect until Jan. 1, 2022, meaning it wouldn’t be in place for a possible recall election later this year. However, the secretary of state’s office could simply extend its temporary rules to include a recall election.

No one mentioned the recall during a public hearing Monday on the proposal. State Sen. Josh Becker, the bill’s author and a Democrat from Menlo Park, said it will make permanent “what we know works from November 2020.”

Of the more than 17.7 million ballots Californians cast in the November general election, 49,816 ballots were rejected because a signature did not match. More than 86% of all ballots cast in that election were vote by mail.

“This gives confidence to all Californians that their votes are counted,” Becker said.

Eric Harris, director of public policy for the advocacy group Disability Rights California, said the bill “has the best interests of voters in mind,” noting voters with disabilities are more likely to have their signatures rejected.

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But Ruth Weiss, vice president of Election Integrity Project California, noted the state’s election law already requires the rules to be “liberally construed” in favor of a voter. She said the temporary rules in place for the 2020 election “provided loopholes for virtually all signatures to be accepted, making efforts at legitimate signature verification a mere sham.”

“These regulations did not protect legitimate ballots, but rather the illegitimate ones,” she said.

Steven Glazer, a Democrat from Orinda and chairman of the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee, indicated he supported the bill’s intent, saying “there really has to be a higher threshold to eliminate someone’s voice.”

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The bill is Senate Bill 503.