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Voter Recount Slowed Because Of Signature Verification Process


Vote counting from last Tuesday's election goes on in many parts of the country. And one big reason it's taking so long is the need to match voter signatures with election files. Mail-in, as well as provisional, absentee and military ballots require voters to sign those ballots. But signatures change over time, and that's causing a problem for election officials in some states. Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It used to be you'd sign on the bottom line, whether it was a check or a credit card receipt or even a love letter. But the art of the signature has become less important and less practiced. And that has meant less certainty for elections officials who have to decipher the signatures on voting ballots. It's a problem especially for younger voters, says Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida.

DANIEL SMITH: Let's say you're a civically engaged 16-year-old and you preregister to vote in Florida, which you're allowed to do, you might have a signature that has a nice heart over the I on your name as a 16-year-old. But you come to the University of Florida. You become a sophisticated Gator. Your signature now looks very different on your driver's license which you got later on.

NAYLOR: Smith, who authored a study on the issue for the ACLU in Florida, says it's the signature the voter created at age 16 that's going to be the signature of record.

SMITH: So we have big issues, certainly, with younger people whose signatures are not fixed. In a digital world where you're signing your name with your finger on an iPad, with the idea of having some definition of who you are, has your identity tied to a signature that you may have done when you were 16 that now disenfranchises you seems somewhat incompatible with the right to vote.

NAYLOR: Smith says his study found that younger voters were four times more likely to have their absentee ballots rejected than voters over age 65. Older people may not be of as firm a hand but still have their signature pretty well-set. Another issue, he says, is many elections officials aren't well-trained in how to compare signatures.

SMITH: If you talk to people who are in forensics, they know that you can't just match a signature with one other signature and have any confidence that it's the same individual who's written both of them. You need to have a range of different signatures - that people's signatures, depending on the condition in which they're writing the signature and the type of pen they're using, whether they're doing it inside or outside, is going to vary.

NAYLOR: In Colorado where every voter receives a mail-in ballot, officials are well-trained in how to read signatures. Amber McReynolds is a former director of elections for Denver and is now director of the National Vote at Home Institute.

AMBER MCREYNOLDS: We actually brought in a handwriting expert to develop training materials. And he would come in every election cycle and train the judges on what to look for, how to approach signature verification, all of that.

NAYLOR: McReynolds says most big counties in Colorado use signature software that she says is more consistent than human eyes. The biggest issue, she says, is that there be enough time for voters, who are told their signatures don't match, to fix any discrepancies before the deadline for ballots to be counted passes. In Washington state, for instance, counties have three weeks to count ballots as long as they're postmarked by Election Day. In California, they have a month to finish their work. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.