It’s unlikely the Georgia Secretary of State’s office will further examine absentee voter signatures despite calls from top Republicans ahead of the state’s recount, a top election official told reporters Monday.
Top Republicans, including President Donald Trump and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, have requested signature audits tied to Georgia’s absentee voting.
Under state law, the identification or signature of voters is checked twice during the absentee voting process, and an accepted ballot can’t be traced back to a signed envelope once the two are separated. The process protects ballot secrecy.
But county election officials keep the signed envelopes for two years. Currently, there’s no state law requiring or outlining the process for rechecking envelope signatures against the state database after those signatures were already confirmed, said Gabriel Sterling, the state’s voting system implementation manager.
“If a court orders it or if we have specific investigatory reasons, you do it,” he said of auditing the signatures. “If we make a precedent of ‘I don’t like the outcome. Therefore, we should start investigating random parts of the process.’ ...It’s a bad precedent.”
How Georgia checks identification and signatures for absentee ballots
Under Georgia law, voters may request an absentee ballot via a paper or online application. If requesting a ballot by paper, the application must be signed. That signature is checked against the state’s voter database. If a ballot is requested online, a voter must provide their driver’s license or another ID number to confirm their identification.
Voters sign an outer envelope when returning an absentee ballot, and the signature is again checked against the state’s database. The database contains multiple versions of a person’s signatures. The signatures don’t need to be an exact match, but they must be consistent, the secretary of state’s office said.
Changes to the state’s absentee voting process were made in March after state officials signed a consent decree outlining new signature matching and ballot rejection procedures. Under the new process, voters are given a chance to fix errors or issues with their ballot before it is officially rejected. Election officials can mail a written notice, call the voter or email them.
When a signature is missing or not consistent, the voter must fill out a cure affidavit and provide a form of identification to prove their identity. If a voter doesn’t provide this information within three days of the election, the ballot is not counted.
Representatives of political parties — as well as any Georgia resident — have the right to observe the signature matching as part of the absentee ballot process. Sterling said neither party participated.
The total number of absentee ballots rejected for signature issues increased by roughly 350% in the November 2020 election in Georgia from the 2018 election — about the same rate of increase in the total number of absentee ballots accepted, according to data from the secretary of state’s office.
The overall rejection rate for absentee ballots with missing or non-matching signatures in the 2020 General Election was 0.15%, the same rejection rate as the 2018 General Election.
What do Trump, Kemp and Georgia Republicans want?
In a statement announcing his recount request, Trump’s legal team said signature matching had to occur. Signature matching tied directly to ballots, as requested by Trump, is not possible under Georgia law.
“President Trump and his campaign continue to insist on an honest recount in Georgia, which has to include signature matching and other vital safeguards,” the Trump campaign said in a statement Saturday.
Kemp, the former secretary of state who now serves as Georgia’s Governor, called for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his office to conduct a signature audit of absentee ballot envelopes and applications.
“It’s important to note that this audit only looked at ballots, not the signatures on the absentee applications or the signatures on the ballot envelopes,” Kemp said Friday. “The Georgians I have heard from are extremely concerned about this, so I encourage Secretary Raffensperger to consider addressing these concerns. It seems simple enough to conduct a sample audit of signatures on the absentee ballot envelopes and compare those to the signatures on applications and on file at the Secretary of State’s Office.”
In a letter signed by the State Executive Committee of the Georgia Republican Party, officials called for an audit of the state’s absentee ballots, including “verification of signature match.”
“We believe an audit is imperative to assure the integrity of the election and restore the shattered confidence in our electoral system,” a portion of the letter reads.
What the Secretary of State’s office is doing? What’s next?
There’s no current structure in Georgia’s election law to audit the envelope or application signatures as Kemp requested, Sterling said. It’s unclear who would pay for that process and how it would be done.
“The only way we could potentially do it is as part of an overall investigation, but we can’t open investigations based on a generalized (unhappiness) with the outcome,” he said. “There’s been no specific evidence presented.
“I won’t characterize the rationales or reasons some people want to do this,” he added. “The questions aren’t based in evidence. They are based in emotional appeals from Facebook and Twitter that have no science behind them and no evidence behind them.”
A main goal for the office moving forward is to use drivers’ license or state ID numbers rather than signatures for mail-in voting identification, Sterling said. It’s among some of the changes the secretary of state’s office wants to make to Georgia’s election system. Kemp expressed support for the idea Friday.
County election officials will soon begin the electronic recount of Georgia’s presidential election following Trump’s request, state officials said Monday morning. An updated timeline of the process is expected to be released Monday afternoon.
This story was originally published November 23, 2020 3:07 PM.