WILL YOUR VOTE BE COUNTED?
October 22, 2004
All across the country, there seems to be more fear of election fraud than at any time in my memory. Of course, much of this interest stems from the controversy regarding vote counting in Florida after the 2000 presidential election and claims from both parties that the other was trying to steal the election.
Forget Florida. With Oregon’s vote by mail system, there is a loophole that makes Florida’s hanging chad problem pale in comparison. In Oregon, your properly marked ballot can be thrown out simply because some untrained county elections employee doesn’t like the looks of your signature.
The way the system works in Oregon, when a ballot is received at the county elections office, a county employee looks at the signature on the envelope, compares it to the signature on the person’s voter registration card, and decides whether the signature looks like that of the same person.
If the clerk decides that the signature is not yours, your vote doesn’t count. The signature indeed may be yours, but if the signature on the ballot envelope is sufficiently different from the signature you affixed to your voter registration card, perhaps decades ago, your vote doesn’t count.
I visited the office of the Secretary of State and asked them a few questions about this system, which seems to allow public employees to discard ballots merely at their whim. This is what I learned:
If the signature they are examining is a signature on an initiative petition, the clerk’s decision is final and cannot be appealed. You can go to the elections office in person with a notarized affidavit, swearing that the signature really is yours, but it doesn’t matter. The decision of the county employees, who are by no means experts in handwriting analysis, is final and overrules your sworn testimony. Your signature doesn’t count.
In 2002, I had a measure thrown off the ballot by Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, because I came up short by 600 signatures on an initiative petition for which I had turned in 49,000 signatures more than was required to qualify for the ballot.
Because I had missed the ballot by a mere 600 signatures and had lost a record 4,800 signatures due to what the elections people call “non matches,” I decided to collect affidavits from those voters whose signatures had been rejected, and submit them to a Marion County judge.
The judge, however, ruled that the clerks have the authority to reject signatures at their own discretion. Proving that the clerks were wrong and that the signatures were genuine was irrelevant.
Even the testimony of an expert handwriting analyst was rejected by the court as irrelevant. The judge ruled that the entire signature verification process is at the whim of the county clerks and their mistakes are not reviewable.
That’s how it works for petition signatures. The process changes slightly when the signatures being examined are on ballot envelopes. With ballot signatures, the county clerks are required to “attempt” to contact a voter, if his or her signature is in question. However, if the voter cannot be reached by 8:00 p.m. on Election Day, the ballot is not counted.
With between 500,000 and one million ballots being returned on Monday and Tuesday, the last two days of the election, how likely is it that the employees at the local elections office can reach everyone whose ballot signature is in question by 8:00 on Tuesday night? They couldn’t. It would be an impossible task.
The obvious question for the State Elections Division was, “How many ballots were discarded in the last presidential election for non-matching signatures, given that I lost 4,800 out of 137,000 petition signatures?” Their amazing answer was, “We don’t know.”
Shocked by their answer, I then asked, “Was the number more than the 6,000 votes by which Bush lost to Gore in Oregon?” They again answered, “We don’t know.”
I find such a system incredible. Virtually untrained public employees get to decide whether your vote counts, based on their whim. Those employees may be honest, and I assume most are, but should such a fundamental and sacred thing be left to anyone’s whim? With no checks and balances and no right for judicial review, the potential for fraud is enormous.
We proved they were wrong when they threw out thousands of valid signatures on my petition in 2002 and kept my initiative off the ballot. A whopping three percent of my signatures were rejected for non-matching signatures, and virtually every one of the rejected signatures turned out to be genuine.
If that percentage held for a statewide general election, where more than 1.5 million votes are expected to be cast, 45,000 ballots would be rejected for non-matching signatures; and that in a state where the presidential election probably will be decided by only a few thousand votes.
Maybe the county elections folks are less picky with ballot signatures than they are with my petition signatures and the percentage will be less. Maybe with ballot signatures, they let more of the “close calls” pass through unchallenged. If that’s the case, their laxness presents an even greater problem, doesn’t it?
The least we can ask is that the Secretary of State find out how many ballots are being rejected statewide, and why. While he is at it, maybe he can ask whether the numbers for Democrats and Republicans are proportional. With no checks and balances in place, they may not be.
© 2004 Bill Sizemore - All Rights Reserved
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Bill Sizemore is a registered Independent who
works as executive director of the Oregon Taxpayers Union, a statewide
taxpayer organization. Bill was the Republican candidate for governor
in 1998. He and his wife Cindy have four children, ages eight to thirteen,
and live on 36 acres in Beavercreek, just southeast of Oregon City, Oregon.
If the clerk decides that the signature is not yours, your vote doesn’t count. The signature indeed may be yours...