The Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously ruled Friday that postal ballot papers cannot be rejected if a voter's signature looks different from the signature on their registration form.
The verdict came after Pennsylvania Democratic Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, the state's chief electoral officer, approached the court to clarify the legitimacy of her signature-matching policy. It introduced instructions in September that said ballot papers should not be discarded due to mismatched signatures, and has since been embroiled in a legal battle with the re-election campaign of President Donald Trump and other Republicans.
The court ruling – supported by five Democratic and two Republican judges – marks a victory for Democrats and electorates in a critical battlefield state. Trump won in 2016 with around 44,000 votes. It follows another loss for Republicans in the state: The US Supreme Court ruling on October 19 that passed a ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that ballots submitted up to three days after election day must be counted.
"The county electoral boards are prohibited from rejecting postal or postal ballot papers based on signature comparisons conducted by electoral officials or county employees, or because of third-party challenges based on signature analyzes and comparisons," the court wrote, confirming Boockvars Guidance.
"If the voter's declaration is signed on the back envelope and the county office is satisfied that the declaration is sufficient, the postal ballot should be approved for the acquisition unless challenged under Pennsylvania Electoral Law," wrote Boockvar in September . "The Pennsylvania Electoral Code does not authorize the county electoral authority to revoke returned postal or postal ballot papers based solely on signature analysis by the county electoral authority."
According to the US election project, over 1.4 million Pennsylvanians have submitted postal ballot papers, the vast majority of which were posted by registered Democrats.
Pennsylvania and other states in the US anticipate an unprecedented surge in postal ballots as voters seek ways to avoid a face-to-face vote due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Signature matching processes are a controversial topic. As political scientists and advocates of voting rights have pointed out, in an electoral system where fraud is extremely rare, electoral officials are likely to reject signatures far more authentic than false.
As reported by the Atlantic, a Carroll College political scientist working on behalf of plaintiffs against a signature match law in Ohio calculated a 97 percent chance that a particular ballot in the state that was rejected for a signature mismatch was authentic. And in 2016, perceived signature mismatches were the main reason for mail-in ballot slips to be disqualified.
Voting advocates have also indicated that signature matching processes are likely to disproportionately rule out authentic signatures from very young voters, very old voters, disabled voters, and color voters.
In battlefield states like Pennsylvania, where the profit margins between candidates can be wafer-thin, signature-matching policies could play a crucial role in the outcome of the 2020 election. With a significant 20 electoral votes and an ideologically diverse population, electoral laws are particularly important in Pennsylvania.
As of this morning, FiveThirtyEight's poll averages show Democratic candidate Joe Biden 6 percentage points ahead of Trump in Pennsylvania. Both candidates have put the state in the spotlight in the last days of the campaign in hopes of attracting new supporters.
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