Poll workers count the ballots on November 6th in Lawrenceville, GA.

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With paper-thin margins in the Georgia and Arizona presidential elections, election officials scrutinize each ballot. When the dust settles, there will be a number of American citizens whose votes will be rejected due to mismatched signatures on postal ballot papers – which could affect a possible recount. This is because these states, along with 29 others in the country, rely on signature match verification, according to the Campaign Legal Center. Determining whether a ballot is editable is a subjective human task, although a number of factors, including health disorders and technology, can affect a person’s signature.

While Georgia and Arizona allow ballots to be “cured”, meaning voters whose signatures do not match are contacted and given the opportunity to resolve issues, the three- and five-day windows in these states don’t offer much time Corrections. “The problem is that a US citizen’s fundamental right to vote is so easily dismissed because of the occasional lay person’s observation of their signatures,” said Sean J. Young, legal director of Georgia ACLU.

The pseudoscience of graphology, the analysis of handwriting, was a cornerstone of court record of the late 19th and 20th centuries. However, it has been largely discredited and increasingly banned from judicial proceedings over the past three decades, making it all the more curious why this type of analysis is central to voting review in so many states. “If you’ve disenfranchised a voter, you really should make sure it’s legitimate to do so,” says Young, who negotiated a successful case in which Georgia had to change its signature verification procedures.

Prior to 2018, a postal ballot that was checked by an untrained person in Georgia could be discarded without recourse to a mismatched signature. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Muslim Voter Project against then Georgian Foreign Minister Brian Kemp, argued that this process violated the 14th Amendment protecting a citizen’s right to due process. The lawsuit was initiated due to a disproportionate number of mismatches in Gwinnett County. The US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia agreed and called for a “hardening period” for corrections in the 2018 elections. A federal appeals court upheld the ruling, which was codified by state parliament in 2019.


Poll workers in Fulton County examine ballot papers in Atlanta, Georgia.

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There are many legitimate reasons a person’s signature can change over time, including age, health issues, or simply that they changed their style on their own. As people mature, their brains isolate the nerve connections with a protective shield known as myelination. “Until your brain has fully made all of these connections, there’s still a chance your handwriting will change,” says Dr. Camilla Kilbane, movement disorder neurologist at Cleveland Medical Center University Hospitals. While these changes are more pronounced in children when they learn to write, this process continues into their 20s and even up to the age of 30.

The three most common neurological disorders that could contribute to handwriting changes would be Parkinson’s, essential tremor, and stroke, Kilbane says. In Parkinson’s disease, the tremor is most pronounced at rest. “What tends to be is that the handwriting is getting smaller,” says Kilbane due to slower and stiffer movements. The opposite is the essential tremor that is commonly diagnosed in both early adulthood and seniors. “When your hands are in your lap, you have no tremors. But when you use your hands, the tremor tends to get worse, ”says Kilbane, adding that it can vary in severity.

As anyone who’s ever signed a credit card machine can likely attest, an electronic pen’s signature can look very different than a pen’s.

After someone has a stroke, they may develop ataxia, which Kilbane calls “a fancy word for incoordination.” This means that patients may fall short or short of writing what makes them “sloppy and shaky”. A less common cause could be writer’s cramp, which is medically known as dystonia, which causes involuntary muscle contraction.

Aside from health issues, there can also be technological complications with the signature. In Georgia, citizens are automatically registered to vote when applying for a driver’s license. Many DMVs have implemented electronic writing pads that allow users to write their driver license signatures instead of pen and paper that are then used for verification, says Young of the ACLU. As anyone who has ever signed a credit card machine can likely attest, an electronic pen signature can look very different from a pen.

The core problem, however, is that the determination of the legitimacy of the signature is made by another person based on dubious methods. In the case of Arizona there is some level of education. “The districts are trained by forensic scientists and every signature is checked by staff,” wrote Foreign Minister spokeswoman Sophia Solis in an email. The office was unable to provide data on how many voters were contacted regarding signature problems in the 2016 presidential election and how many ballot papers were “cured”.

The Georgian Foreign Minister did not respond to a request for comment, but the state’s three-day “cure” period will end on Friday, when pending mismatched ballots will be officially rejected. In the event of a recount, none of the uncured ballots will be rechecked, says Young. “The validity determination has already been made,” he says. “And it’s over, which is why it’s scary too.”