In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, the New Hampshire branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is taking issue with a state law that allows election officials to toss voters’ absentee ballots without notifying those voters or giving them a chance to appeal the decision.
The ACLU identified at least three people whose absentee ballots were rejected because of inconsistencies in their signatures during the 2016 elections. None of the three voters knew about the issue until the advocacy group reached out to them in early 2017.
Under state law, election officials reviewing absentee ballots are supposed to compare the signature used on the absentee ballot itself with the one on the voter’s absentee voting application. If those officials notice inconsistencies, they can reject the ballot.
That information is supposed to be recorded in the state’s voter database, but ACLU New Hampshire Legal Director Gilles Bissonnette says voters aren’t given an opportunity to contest the challenge to their ballot and often are unaware that their ballot was discarded until well after the election.
“The fact that hundreds of voters are losing their right to vote, without notice, without process, without an opportunity to be heard, is something that is defective in the current system,” Bissonnette said.
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Derry resident Maureen Heard, applied to vote absentee in November because she needed to be out-of-state temporarily for work — and, until she was contacted by the ACLU in January, thought her vote was counted just like everyone else’s.
“I was heartbroken, and then I was angry that I could be disenfranchised for something as silly as my signature not matching,” she said.
Heard said she doesn't recall being warned that her handwriting would be under such close scrutiny when she sought her absentee ballot. She said she filled out her absentee ballot application “like I would sign any credit card slip, very informally.” When it came time to fill out the ballot itself, she said, “I used my best cursive.”
“If they’re going to have a rule that says the signatures need to match, then they need to have it on the form very prominently, so you’re aware of it,” Heard said. “I just had no idea.”
Another plaintiff in the lawsuit whose ballot was rejected because of signature inconsistencies also had out-of-state work obligations on Election Day. A third plaintiff is a 94-year-old woman who is blind and, according to the lawsuit, required her husband’s assistance to complete her absentee ballot. (State law says voters who are blind and unable to complete their ballots independently are entitled to have someone fill out their absentee ballot for them.)
Publicly available data shows that about 321 absentee ballots were rejected in 2012 and 145 in 2014 and because of inconsistent signatures. Figures for 2016 aren’t yet available. About 10 percent of New Hampshire voters used absentee ballots in the most recent general election.
The Secretary of State’s office declined to comment, saying it didn’t yet have a chance to review the complaint as of Wednesday afternoon.