New low in voter suppression: Signature doesn’t match? No vote for you!

Here’s a creative new way to suppress voters whose ballots you’d rather not count: Turn poll workers into handwriting experts, and have them compare a voter’s original registration signature to the one on his or her absentee ballot. If the two signatures don’t match exactly, the ballot is disqualified.

This recently concocted rule is actually on the books in Florida in 2012. It’s the latest in Florida Governor Rick Scott’s already notorious lineup of voter suppression tactics, which includes striking suspected—but not actual—felons from the rolls, along with people whose citizenship the Florida Secretary of State deems questionable.

To the relief of voting rights watchdogs [and shouldn’t we all be voting-rights watchdogs?], earlier today [May 31, 2012], a Florida circuit court judge invalidated much of Governor Scott’s voter-suppression schemes, calling them unconstitutional under Florida law. The ruling, however, doesn’t appear to address the “signature please” law.

The signature rule appears to apply only to absentee ballots, which Florida voters are required to sign before they mail them in. The purported rationale behind the signature rule is that people’s signatures change over time, so that the signature on one’s absentee ballot might not exactly match one’s original voter-registration signature. And an non-matching signature, under this particular Florida rule, will disqualify your ballot.

What’s wrong with that logic? Sure,it’s hard to dispute that one’s signature changes a bit over time—particularly as age sets in. But there are many legitimate–non-fraudulent–reasons  for a ballot signature to look different from an original voter-registration signature: Maybe you broke your hand just before you registered to vote. Or maybe you’ve developed arthritis. Or, maybe the cool-looking squiggle you adopted as your signature when you were 21 has changed over time. Just because your signature doesn’t match precisely doesn’t mean you’re a forger or a vote fraudster.

In any case, the problem is that pollworkers are not handwriting analysts—and even professional handwriting experts can’t always be sure that two signatures match precisely.

The signature please law calls for far too much subjectivity to make it a valid reason to disqualify a ballot.  It also places an undue burden on qualified voters, who are being asked to update their signatures. Here’s—verbatim—what the Florida Secretary of State’s office says, courtesy of PoliticsUSA:

It is very important to update your signature on file, as it may change throughout the years. Signatures on your registration record are used to verify signatures on petitions, absentee ballots and provisional ballots. If you signature does not match, your petition or ballot will not count. A signature update may be made by submitting a Florida Voter Registration Application.

The Supervisor for Elections in Polk County offers some oh-so-helpful information for voters needing signature updates, in the FAQ section of the county’s website:

Question: Why should I update my signature? Answer: Florida law requires the Canvass Board compare your signature on your absentee ballot envelope to the signature on file with the Supervisor of Elections office. This verification process protects you from attempted voter fraud. If the signature on file is old, or your signature has changed, an updated signature will help the Canvass Board verify your identity.

Question: How do I update my signature with the Elections Office? Answer: It’s Easy! Just download this form (click here), check the “signature update” box, complete the name and date of birth boxes, and mail the form to Supervisor of Elections, P.O. Box 1460, Bartow, FL 33830. If you’re unable to download the form, just send us a letter with your name, date of birth and signature. Mention that this is a signature update.

Is that easy? I’d call it a calculated, pain in the ass bureaucratic hurdle designed to make it even harder for you to vote—especially if you’re elderly, or lacking internet or computer skills. It’s hardly a coincidence that this rule hits elderly people hardest, because, in Florida–as elsewhere, older people are among the most diligent absentee voters, and older people in Florida tend to vote Democratic.They’re a great target, if you’re a Republican who wants to suppress the opposition.

Even if this rule is invalidated in Florida, it has such diabolical appeal to other voter-suppressors, and it’s so subtle and backdoor, that it’s bound to pop up elsewhere in future elections. This bears watching.

Oh, and if you think that inconveniencing a few voters—particularly absentee voters—is a trivial matter that couldn’t possibly affect the outcome of an election, remember that George W. Bush “won” Florida in 2000 by 534 votes.