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As in-person early voting for Georgia’s two fiercely contested Senate seats concludes, counties are working to process as many absentee ballots as they can ahead of Tuesday, when the votes can officially be added up.
One part of the process has received a lot of attention since the general election: signature verification. The process has come under scrutiny after the 1.3 million absentee ballots cast in Georgia in November favored President-elect Joe Biden 2-to-1.
After that, more counties say they’ve had an increase in people observing the signature verification process.
Bea Wilson, a retired IT director, became more involved in elections this year after helping some friends in her mother’s assisted living home apply for absentee ballots.
Wilson has been volunteering for the Republican party, and one of her responsibilities has been observing signature verification in Forsyth County where she lives.
On Tuesday, she was stationed at the county elections department in Cumming, Georgia, where they are processing absentee ballots. Signature verification takes place in an office adjacent to the room where early in-person voting is underway, so observers sit in an area blocked off by caution tape and observe through a window.
“I was anxious to know what signature verification looked like, so I volunteered for this function and it’s kind of limited because of the private information on the voter’s records,” Wilson said. “You end up looking through a glass window at the back of a screen where the employees are verifying signatures and you’re just watching them shuffle paper and looking at a screen.”
Democratic party observer Trish Jones, a retired lawyer, said the party had given her pretty clear instructions on her role.
“We’re merely here to observe and make sure the good workers doing the hard work here are permitted to do it without disruption,” Jones said.
Jones was observing Fulton County’s absentee ballot processing at the Georgia World Congress Center on Monday.
“One of the things they tell us in training is the best day is a boring day, and so far it’s been a very boring day, because I see a lot of hard-working people with their heads down doing their jobs, whether it’s verifying signatures or scanning ballots,” Jones said. “And that’s exactly what they’re meant to be doing.”
The regulations governing public observation of ballot processing were laid out by the State Elections Board in the same ruling that permitted counties to begin processing ballots early.
“Just because it’s done in public doesn’t mean the public has a right to inspect the signatures. They can’t look at the information that’s on the screen because there’s a lot of private information,” said Chris Harvey, state elections director.
Signature verification is done after the outer envelopes have been opened, and the number of outer envelopes are compared to the number of ballot envelopes.
“They compare the signature on the ballot to what’s in the voter registration system,” Harvey said. “And the legal standard is “appears to be valid” – doesn’t say anything about exact match or matches completely – based on the general characteristics of a signature, understanding that things can change over time and there can be variations.”
But the process isn’t exact enough for the liking of some prominent Georgia Republicans.
“Moving forward we should require photo identification for absentee balloting like we do for in-person voting. I think it’s pretty clear that the verification system has failed,” said Republican party chairman David Shafer.
Despite a lack of evidence of irregularities or fraud in the signature verification process, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger agrees with Shafer, saying the state should do away with signature verification in favor of requiring a more objective identifier, such as photo identification or a social security number.
Democrats, like state Rep. Bee Nguyen, disagree.
“We know that adding a photo ID component would make it harder for people to vote by mail and we want to make voting as expansive as possible. When we restrict and add requirements to a process that has already been proven to be secure, it’s just going to make it harder for voters to vote,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen has been actively refuting claims of voter fraud in Georgia, and she says the signature match process actually rejects more legal votes than it should.
“The processes that have been put in place in other states are processes that ensure that ballots are not being wrongly flagged, and that is not a discussion that people are talking about, Nguyen said. “Ballots are more often than not wrongly flagged for signature mismatch.”
Proposals to tighten the security of the absentee ballot system, including doing away with no-excuse absentee ballots altogether, have continued despite Raffensperger announcing Tuesday that his office has completed an audit of Cobb County’s signature verification for the general election, and found them to have been 99.99% accurate. Of the more than 15,000 ballots that were reviewed with assistance from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, only two were found to have mistakes, both of which could have been corrected by voters during the cure period.
Raffensperger announced the audit in response to specific allegations he said his office had received that Cobb had improperly performed signature verification for the June primaries. In the same announcement, he said there would be a statewide signature audit conducted with the help of the University of Georgia.
Some Republicans, including Shafer, are still unsatisfied. Shafer wishes the audit had been done for Fulton County, where two poll managers were fired for testifying that the November election had irregularities or mismanagement. Fulton claims the two employees had been under review for alleged policy violations.
“It’s unclear to us why they chose Cobb County for the audit, when there were specific allegations of wrongdoing in Fulton County,” Shafer said. “Also we don’t understand why they did not allow observers from the political parties or forensic handwriting experts to participate from the political parties.”
Shafer also maintains that there were Republicans who wished to observe signature verification for the November election but were turned away by the counties and that Raffensperger’s office agreed to issue an Official Election Bulletin on the issue but never did. Representatives for the Secretary of State have repeatedly said that they only have one record of a county receiving a request to observe signature verification for the general and stated in an email exchange that observers do not need the Secretary of State’s permission.
Many counties say they have seen an increase in the number of public observers during early voting for the runoff over how many were present during the general election.