The Slatest

Federal Judge Bars Georgia From Disenfranchising Voters on the Basis of Amateur Handwriting Analysis

Voters cast ballots during the early voting period at C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center on October 18, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. Early voting started in Georgia on October 15th.
Voters cast ballots during the early voting period at C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center on October 18, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Georgia election officials may not throw out absentee ballots on the basis of “signature mismatch,” U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May ruled on Wednesday—a victory for voting rights in a state that has become ground zero for voter suppression.

Under Georgia law, the signatures on voters’ absentee ballots must match the signatures on their voter registration cards. Election officials, who are untrained in handwriting analysis, must compare the two signatures; if they find a “mismatch,” they may nullify the ballot. The state often notifies voters of the problem days or weeks after the election, at which point they can no longer “cure” their ballots by casting a new vote.

Signature mismatch laws primarily affect the disabled, the elderly, and people of color. Already this election cycle, officials have rejected more than 600 ballots and ballot applications on the basis of mismatch. A disproportionate number of these ballots were cast by minority voters. Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia sued, demanding that the state give all mismatch victims an opportunity to cure their ballots. The group filed its suit against Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is running for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams while vigorously suppressing minority votes.

Just one day after hearing oral arguments in the case, Judge May ruled against Kemp. May rejected Kemp’s primary argument that, because there is no constitutional right to vote by absentee ballot, the state need not comply with traditional due process requirements. Voters, May explained, have a “constitutionally protected liberty interest” in voting. And when the state creates “an absentee voter regime,” it “must administer it in accordance with the Constitution.” That means the state cannot disenfranchise absentee voters without “constitutionally adequate due process protection.”

From there, May easily concluded that Georgia has failed to provide due process to mismatch victims. She noted that the state could easily address this constitutional violation by giving voters notice of mismatch and an opportunity to cure their ballots. These safeguards “impose a minimal burden” on the state, May explained, because Georgia already has a process for absentee voters whose ballots are challenged for a different reason. If officials believe a voter is ineligible to participate in the election, for instance, they must provide her with “notice, a hearing, and an opportunity to appeal.” There is no reason why the state cannot use “a similar process for curing mismatched signature ballots.”

Kemp’s final argument was also his most absurd: He argued that “the integrity of the election process will be put into question” if mismatch victims can cure their ballots. May swiftly dismissed this strange claim. The court, she wrote, “does not understand how assuring that all eligible voters are permitted to vote undermines integrity of the election process. To the contrary, it strengthens it.”

To remedy Georgia’s infringement on due process, May proposed an injunction directing election officials to notify mismatch victims and give them an opportunity to confirm their identities—quickly enough to ensure that their vote will still count. She gave the parties one day to offer revisions to the instructions that these officials must follow. Kemp has not yet said whether he will appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If he does, it seems unlikely that the 11th Circuit—or the U.S. Supreme Court, for that matter—will reverse May, given the limited scope of her ruling. Her decision is in line with those of other courts that have confronted signature mismatch and determined that due process requires at least an opportunity for appeal.

Wednesday’s order is undoubtedly a step in the right direction that restricts Georgia’s limitless discretion to void votes on the basis of amateur handwriting analysis. But this entire case illustrates the danger of signature mismatch laws, even those modified to comport with the Constitution. Kemp is an expert vote thief who has already blocked 53,000 voter registration applications, most of them from minorities, through his discriminatory “Exact Match” system. The mismatch law hands him another tool that can be deployed to quash minority votes and could even swing an election. It has no place in a democracy. And if Abrams manages to defeat Kemp after all this chicanery, repealing Georgia’s signature mismatch law should be at the top of her agenda.

This post has been updated with new information since it was originally published.