Counting Your Mail Ballot Hinges On A Signature. Here's How Colorado Election Officials Verify Your Scribbles
Ballots have been going out this week to registered voters in Colorado, who can just fill in the bubbles, seal it in the envelope and sign that before mailing it or putting it in a 24-hour drop box. But then what?
The ballot goes to a county clerk and recorder’s counting facility, where it’s securely stored and is subject to a carefully maintained chain of custody log. Early ballot counting starts on Oct. 19. After making sure the envelope’s seal hasn’t been tampered with, workers send it on to confirm the signature on the ballot actually came from the ballot’s owner.
Two sets of election judges (registered voters who volunteer to administer elections) are responsible for the signature checking process. They spend hours training with a 20-page state signature verification guide.
“We're looking at that consistency, you know?” said Weld County Clerk Carly Koppes, who has been watching these trainings since Colorado became an all-mail ballot state in 2013. “Do they have a slant to the left? Do they have a consistent slant to the right? Do they write it straight up and down? Do they, between their first name and last name, do they continue it or do they pick up their pen and put it back on and start again?”
Koppes adds the law doesn’t require cursive.
“(In) my name, Carly, do I stop at any point and lift up my pen and finish how I sign?” she said. “With my C, do I make it a big C? Do I make it a tight C?”
And she said that someone tracing or trying to perfectly mimic a signature that isn’t theirs using a driver’s license or other documents will be noticed.
“If you signed your name this morning and you signed it again this afternoon, there's going to be a difference between those two signatures, and that's just within a matter of hours,” she explained. “If we're seeing an exact copy of somebody's signature, that's a red flag to us, because there is no possible way that you're going to do an exact copy of that person's signature or even of your own.”
In 2017, Weld County successfully prosecuted a former chairman of the state Republican party for signing his ex-wife’s ballot. Koppes sees that case as evidence of the veracity of these protections.
Several Northern Colorado clerks told KUNC that many of their judges have been doing this for a long time.
“Your eyes get trained, usually your first instinct is correct and if you see something off you can look at different signatures, and so it’s a matter of training and experience,” Summit County Clerk Kathleen Neel said, addressing concerns that judges may be too overeager to reject or accept a ballot.
Weld Clerk Koppes shared a similar sentiment, adding that her office tries to pair new judges with old ones in training to mitigate the possibility of nerves taking over their decision-making.
“When you are new to that, you do kind of get a little like, 'Oh my gosh, this is really super important, like I better not make a mistake at all. It's going to end the world,'” she said. “And that's why it is always important for us to have those veteran judges that have overcome that fear.”
Plus, the judges are subject to their own state-required checks and balances.
First, at least one judge must compare the signature to one the county has for each registered voter. If they believe the signatures don't match, they pass it on to a team of bipartisan judges who compare that signature to every signature the county has on file from that voter, like state ID and ballot envelope signatures from previous elections. (There is actually some room for variation between counties on this process — more on that below.)
It all happens under constantly rolling, strategically placed cameras to prevent nefarious actions. Finally, judges’ choices are legally required to be periodically audited to check for irregularities, Koppes said.
“If they agree that it’s not a match to what we have on record, it goes into the reject pile,” Summit Clerk Neel said.
Bipartisan judge teams have to agree with each other to make a decision. If they’re all even a bit unsure about the signature, Neel said she expects them to reject it. However, if the judges are wrong and the signature did actually belong to the right voter, that doesn’t mean their right to vote has been canceled.
“They get a letter and an email from this office with a form saying 'We couldn’t verify your signature, you have until eight days after the election to cure that and your ballot will be counted,'” she explained. “There’s a form they have to fill out and include a copy of their ID.”
“Curing” is what election officials call the process of allowing a ballot to be counted. Any rejected ballot is referred to as being “uncured.”
This year, the rejected ballot notification is not just going to come from the local clerk’s office. For this and all future elections, the Secretary of State has set up a statewide online ballot tracking and notification system called BallotTrax, through which voters can request text, phone and email updates about their ballot’s status — from when it’s on it’s way to their mailbox to the moment it’s logged as being counted (or rejected).
There’s also a tool called TXT2Cure which will, as its name suggests, let voters fix rejected ballots by texting “Colorado” to 2VOTE (28638). In a release announcing the new system last week, Secretary Jena Griswold said she believes this will ensure fewer ballots go uncured. Rosemary Lytle, state president of the NAACP CO-MT-WY, praised the system in that same release, saying it could ensure more minority voters who have been historically disenfranchised actually get their ballots counted.
Per the Secretary of State, around half of 1% of all ballots cast statewide were rejected in both the 2016 and 2018 general elections, most of them due to identity verification concerns. Importantly, those rejections have never been enough to impact the results of a statewide election.
“Colorado has the lowest signature rejection rate of any state that has vote-by-mail for all, and Colorado’s average signature verification rejection rates have gone down each election,” a statement from the Secretary’s office said.
KUNC looked at federal Election Administration and Voting Survey data for the state’s northernmost 24 counties and found the total rejection rates for all those counties combined for those two elections is still below 1%.
“I’m very proud of that outcome. And we’ve got no indication that that is erroneous in some way, like too successful or not successful enough,” said Larimer County Clerk Angela Myers.
The EAVS data on rejected ballots is only representative of the ballots that still were uncured eight days after the election. There isn't much “rejected then cured” data — it's just considered “counted.”
Plus, rejection and cure rates can vary. Summit’s clerk said about half of the ballots they reject are verified in time to be counted, while Weld’s clerk said they’d be “lucky” to have 30% of their rejected ballots cured in time. Koppes noted that rate tends to get higher when a race is so close that local party machines kick into action and start contacting their voters to get them to cure rejected ballots.
Once a ballot is accepted, it goes on to the next step: opening the envelope and counting the ballot.
If a ballot remains uncured, it’s sent to the County District Attorney, who will try to get a response from the ballot’s owners. If they still fail to verify the identity, the DA may open an investigation.
“About 80% response rate from their letters, so I guess I need to get more tough, make my letter more intimidating,” Weld Clerk Koppes said with a chuckle. She said she really wishes more people would cure their ballots.
For those worried about whether their signature will be accepted, clerks had the same advice: don’t overthink it, sign like you would any other official document, then watch your ballot tracking, email or mail for any issues and respond quickly.
Election Processes Differ Across The State
Generally, the procedures for signature verification follow the guidelines outlined above. However, within those guidelines, there is room for counties to do things differently.
A two-month Colorado Public Radio investigation looked into the state’s rejected ballots. They found that counties with higher racial and ethnic minority populations, more non-English speakers, young voters or with certain signature-checking procedures tended to have higher overall rates of rejected ballots.
Investigative reporter Ben Markus’ ultimate finding is there isn't one consistent explanation for whether a county’s rejection rates will be high or low. A single data point or procedure that seems like it might explain the rates in one county doesn’t necessarily always do the same in another. KUNC came to a similar finding after looking at data from Colorado’s northernmost 24 counties and comparing three counties’ signature verification policies and procedures through interviews and publicly available documents.
Why Does This All Matter?
While there haven't ever been enough uncured, rejected ballots to sway a statewide election, CPR reported, there is concern that such an election could come any day now.
And there are some local races that have been that close. Weld Clerk Carly Koppes told KUNC she carries the same concern about the impact of uncured ballots on a general election, because Weld County just saw it happen in a local race during this year’s primary.
“There were enough eligible ballots to be cured that it could have possibly made that race even closer or even change the outcome,” she said, referring to the Republican commissioner race in District 3's primary. “It possibly could have done that and we’ve seen that in multiple elections here in Weld County.”
Past elections in Larimer County have been decided by just a handful of votes, County Clerk Angela Myers said. But she believes the current system is still significantly better than what came before it.
“If we were having a polling place election, that election is decided by people either now not going to vote, or they can’t find their location, or they don’t participate because it’s confusing and you don’t even know that it’s been decided by that,” she said. “So I’m not concerned by that. I think the benefits outweigh any perceived detriments.”
Voter participation statewide has increased 9% from before Colorado became an all-mail state in 2013, according to the Secretary of State. Black, Latinx and young voters, who have been historically disenfranchised compared to other demographics, saw participation rate increases between 10-16%.
Different Procedures, Different Populations, Different Outcomes
One of the biggest differences is the use of machines to check all the signatures first. CPR’s investigation identified these machines as a possible factor in higher rejection rates. KUNC’s analysis of EAVS data found that Adams County has the highest rejection rate in the last two general elections of the northern 24 counties and is one of only three counties in the region with rates above 1%.
Larimer County Clerk Angela Myers told KUNC her department uses a machine.
“Our citizen volume, our population is growing over time, right?” she said, explaining why the county decided to get the processing equipment. “And one thing we know, if we learned anything over the years, humans are much less reliable than machinery.”
The machine allows signatures it determines to match to go on to the next step, but that does not mean judges are left out of this process entirely.
The machine, Myers said, passes about 50% of the county’s ballots. State law requires that judges audit at least one in every 50 machine-verified signatures. If they find the machine approved that signature incorrectly, the county must stop using it.
Plus, the two sets of judges described earlier are still responsible for double-checking the machine’s rejections, Myers said. They make the final call on whether the ballot should actually go through or not.
“It certainly does a great job, but the human eyes on it are the second layer, so I'm very very happy with what Agilis (the brand name of the machine used) does,” she said.
Emphasizing the difficulty of pinning the cause of a higher or lower rejection rate on a single point, Adams County’s rejection rate was nearly three times higher than Larimer’s in both recent general elections, despite both counties using this kind of equipment.
Weld County, which had rejection rates lower than Larimer (within just a few decimal points), is considering testing the use of a signature verification machine in this election, Koppes told KUNC. If it's not used in this election, she said, then it likely will be in the next.
The significantly smaller Summit County, which (of the northern 24 counties) had the second and third highest rejection rates in 2016 and 2018’s generals respectively, doesn’t use that kind of machine because it’s not within their budget, Neel said. Summit is one of only three in the region with rates that were above 1%. And that’s the amount after about half of the county’s rejected ballots are cured, as Neel said.
Summit County is much smaller than Weld or Larimer, so while its rejection rate was higher, only 212 ballots went uncured in 2016 and 158 in 2018. Combined, those ballots make up barely over half of the ballots that went uncounted in Weld County alone during 2016’s general election.
“It’s up to the judges to determine whether the signatures match and that’s the model Colorado is based on,” Neel said, responding to a KUNC question about whether she thought Summit’s rejection rate was fine or needed to be reduced. “So we always include more training on signature verification with our judge's training. But it’s the judges who determine whether the signatures match or not. They’re the ones that make that decision.”
The Secretary of State office says they notify “every county in the state with a signature verification rejection rate higher than 1% in the past two elections to let them know that their rate of rejection is substantially higher than the state average.”
There are a few other procedural differences KUNC found between these three counties:
- Whether a signature verification expert helps train the judges. Weld uses one, Larimer and Summit don’t. “Just because we do have volunteers with a whole bunch of different experiences in their background. We want to make sure that we're giving them the most even playing field that we possibly can,” Weld Clerk Koppes said. “So because of that and this being the biggest safeguard to election fraud, that signature verification piece, we wanted to bring in an expert who can break it down to all those different levels of a signature.”
- Which signature the judges compare the envelope signature against first. Weld and Summit’s clerks said they use whatever most recent signature is on record, while Larimer’s said they use the signature on the voter’s registration.
- How many judges do that first check. Summit has bipartisan teams do the first check as well, Weld and Larimer stick with the legal minimum of one. “If one set of judges rejects a ballot for a signature, it goes to a second set of judges for just four more eyes on it,” Summit Clerk Neel said.
- Whether voters can send a copy of their ID in the envelope if they’re worried their signature won’t match. Weld and Summit allow that, Larimer doesn’t. “Because someone could have a broken arm or young people’s signatures could change over the years,” Neel said, explaining why she gives voters that option. Voters can also have a witness sign their envelope to back up their own signature, per state election rules. Or if the voter has a disability that affects their writing, they can use a stamp that will automatically count as a verified signature.
- Whether rejection identification notices are sent in multiple languages. Summit sends theirs in English and Spanish. Larimer only sends theirs in English, as does Weld, though Koppes told KUNC that voters can request notifications in other languages. CPR’s investigation noted the lack of multilingual notifications in many counties is a risk factor for higher rejection rates.
Wondering how your county compares? Still worried about your signature being rejected? Clerks across Northern Colorado say they want voters to reach out to them with questions, concerns or curiosities about the election. Find out how to contact yours here.