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Federal Judge Rejects Lawsuit Against Ohio's Ballot Signature-Matching Process

An absentee ballot application from the state of Ohio.
Darrin McDonald
An absentee ballot application from the state of Ohio.

A federal court has declined to change Ohio's process of signature-matching used to help verify absentee ballots.

Judge Michael H. Watson from the U.S. District Court from the Southern District of Ohio wrote in a decision Sunday that it would be "particularly damaging" to change rules on verifying ballot signatures at this time.

"Some public officials have unfortunately regularly cast doubt on the security and legitimacy of voting by mail," Watson wrote. "A federal court enjoining part of the State’s procedure for maintaining the security of mail-in voting in the weeks leading up to the election could further undermine public confidence in elections."

The judge rejected claims from the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, and two Ohio voters whose primary ballots were rejected because of what appeared to be mismatched signatures. The groups say the variance between counties is a problem.

"When something is so fundamentally important that it could take someone’s right to vote and have it count, all 88 counties should be doing that the same," says Jen Miller of the League of Women Voters.

The groups argue that valid signatures may look different due to the circumstances when signing, or because the voter's penmanship has changed over time.

"Signature matching is not a science, even experts get it wrong, so what we’re trying to do is make this easier on voters," Miller says. "Ultimately, seniors, people with disabilities, young people are all more likely to get denied because of the signature mismatch, even they are who they say they are."

Advocates called for Ohio's election boards to attempt to fix mismatched signature issues by calling or emailing voters right away. However, Watson cited court precedent in writing “[t]he Constitution does not require the best plan, just a lawful one.”

Miller says they are still considering whether or not to appeal, but has a message for voters in the meantime.

"If you’re going to vote absentee and you’re at all worried about your signature matching, start now and check in with your board of elections, track your ballot, just to make sure everything is working," she says.

The lawsuit is one of several against Secretary of State Frank LaRose ahead of a November election that will rely heavily on absentee voting because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Already, the state has seen near-record levelsof absentee ballot requests.

Two separate lawsuits seek to lift LaRose's limits on ballot drop boxes, while another is trying to force the state to accept absentee ballot applications via email and fax.

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.