When ballots arrive at the Okanogan County Auditor’s Office, before the ballot envelope is opened, workers scan the signature on the envelope to compare with signatures on record in the state’s VoteWA system. Workers checking the signatures don’t know anything about the voter, including party affiliation, Okanogan County Auditor Cari Hall said.
If the election worker is unsure about a match, two more people look at the signature. If there’s still uncertainty, the county’s two full-time elections staffers review it, Hall said.
Any time a signature doesn’t match — or is missing — the county makes several attempts to contact the person. They mail a form requesting a new signature and call the phone number on the ballot envelope and any phone numbers on record, Hall said.
All ballots with questionable signatures are secured in a vault, unopened, while the county attempts to reach the voter to obtain a new signature. The ballots are removed from the vault only after they receive the voter’s signature-verification form, Hall said.
People who simply forgot to sign the envelope typically respond right away. Some voters say they were in a hurry when they signed, or that they signed the envelope leaning on their dashboard, Hall said.
Elections staff explain to voters that state law requires a written signature match. But some people still decline to provide a new signature and simply insist that it was their signature on the envelope, Hall said.
“We want to count their ballot, but the only way, by law, is through a signature check,” Hall said. “We take our job very seriously.”
Even when voters return their form with a new signature, sometimes that one still doesn’t match. In that case, all signatures on record are printed for the county’s canvassing board to review, Hall said.
To have the most complete records, the county asks people to provide sample signatures created the way they sign their ballot, including when they’re in a hurry or leaning on their steering wheel. The county keeps every signature on file for future reference and can store about eight signatures, Hall said.
Having mismatched signatures in the initial ballot check is not uncommon. There have been many instances where even county employees and elected officials have had to provide a signature to match, Hall said.
The county tries to accommodate people to address common mix-ups, such as when spouses sign each other’s envelope by mistake, Hall said. Elections staff will put those ballots aside and then confirm that both are registered voters and that their signatures match what’s on file.
People can also make a mark on the envelope and have two witnesses attest that that person signed the ballot. Some people come into the Auditor’s Office every election to sign their ballot in front of staff members, Hall said.
The only reasons a ballot can be rejected are if it is late (postmarked after Election Day), if the signature doesn’t match, or if the auditor finds that the voter has moved and their ballot has already been accepted by another county, Hall said.
Okanogan County is being proactive about updating its signature files. This year, the county sent out signature forms to anyone whose signature on record is more than 20 years old — more than 5,000 people — and received up-to-date signatures from 79% of them, Hall said. Some people wondered why they got the request, but they were very appreciative when it was explained, she said.
After her office finishes updating signatures that are 20 years old, they’ll start on voters whose signatures are 15 years old, and then 10, Hall said.
Okanogan County invites people to observe ballot processing, including signature verification, through live video. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, they’re impressed with how secure it is,” Hall said.
“I want to help people have faith in their election system in this county,” she said.