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Perils of electronic signatures clear after primary election

Perils of electronic signatures clear after primary election

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The state’s first mostly vote-by-mail election resulted in thousands of voters having to prove their ballots legitimate because they either didn’t sign them or the signatures on their ballots didn’t match those on file at county boards of election.

A particular problem in Atlantic County were signatures on file that were indistinct — often just a squiggly line — while signatures on ballots were much clearer.

The indistinct signatures were often made on an electronic screen through the state Motor Vehicle Commission, said Board of Elections Chair Lynn Caterson.

“The board has indicated there are many concerns we found in this election ... we felt needed to be fixed before the next election, and yes, that was one of them,” Caterson said of the poor-quality MVC signatures.

In Atlantic County, 615 vote-by-mail or provisional ballots were set aside and “cure letters” sent to the voters, said Caterson. That was out of about 49,000 ballots cast.

The cure letters asked voters to sign and return a form in order for their votes to count.

Caterson said about 365 forms had been received back, and those votes were counted Friday.

“While MVC is always working to upgrade and improve systems, there are no specific plans at this time to change the mode of signature collection,” spokesman William Connolly said.

The cure letters were only an option because of an executive order by Gov. Phil Murphy, who wanted to minimize the chance of spreading COVID-19 by holding a mostly vote-by-mail election.

He ordered that voters whose ballots had signature problems be given a chance to correct them so their votes would count. It is unknown whether a similar order will be in place for the general election in November.

Statewide in earlier elections, ballots without signatures or with problematic signatures would not be counted.

“In the past we would void the ballot and send the voter a letter after the election telling the voter the signature didn’t match and the vote didn’t count,” Cape May County Registrar Michael Kennedy said.

Then the office would have the voter come in to update the signature for the next election.

According to the MVC’s 2019 annual report, 713,223 people registered statewide to vote while applying for driver’s licenses, an examination permit, a probationary driver’s license or a non-driver identification card. It was the first full year the MVC of automatic voter registration at MVC. Previously MVC customers could register on an "opt-in" basis, but had to deliberately select an option to register to vote, according to Connolly.

In Cape May County, 278 voters got cure letters, said Kennedy, out of almost 24,000 ballots cast.

Kennedy said there was not a disproportionate number of poor MVC signatures in the mix. That’s probably because his office routinely examines signatures provided with new registrations from the MVC and takes steps to get better signatures on a daily basis, he said.

“If we get a signature we can’t decipher, on a daily basis we send a letter (to the voter),” Kennedy said. More than 90% of people respond and provide an updated signature.

“Any correspondence we get, we update the signature from the correspondence,” Kennedy said. “Over the years, signatures change.”

He said each office staff member has oversight of 12,000 to 14,000 voters, and has the responsibility to keep their signatures up to date.

“What the cure letter really did was help that process,” Kennedy said.

Editors Note: This story was updated on Monday, July 27 to clarify that 2019 was the first full year of automatic voter registration at MVC. The service was previously available on an "opt-in" basis.

Contact: 609-272-7219

mpost@pressofac.com

Twitter @MichelleBPost

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Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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