What are the “Exact Match” and “Signature Match” Laws?

Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Leigh Martin May denied Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s request to pause an injunction regarding the state’s “signature match” law. Last week, May ordered Kemp’s office not to toss absentee ballots where the signature didn’t exactly match the voter’s registration. Kemp had asked that May stay the order while his office appeals the decision to the the Eleventh Circuit Court.

The “exact match law,” passed in 2013 and updated in 2017, has been getting a lot of terrible press lately. Yet, “exact match” is different than “signature match.” Confused? Let’s walk through it, starting with “signature match,” which was the focus of the injunction last week and the denial of the stay yesterday.

According to WABE, as of October 23rd, when the original injunction was filed, 2,081 absentee ballots statewide had been affected by “signature match.” Because Judge May’s injunction was retroactive, it covers all of those previously-rejected ballots and any additional ballots that would have been rejected because of mismatching signatures.

Georgia’s “signature match” law is fairly straightforward in its wording, with little wiggle room for interpretation. It’s weird, though, because if you read any Georgia ballot, voters are free to sign or mark it. After all, literacy is not a prerequisite to vote. Requiring that would violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet, the “signature match” law states, “If the elector has failed to sign the oath, or if the signature does not appear to be valid, or if the elector has failed to furnish required information or information so furnished does not conform with that on file in the registrar’s or clerk’s office, or if the elector is otherwise found disqualified to vote, the registrar or clerk shall write across the face of the envelope ‘Rejected,’ giving the reason therefor.”

Maybe that third stipulation covers the mark of a voter, but how would someone know one person’s X from another person’s? Similarly, there are other reasons where a person’s signature would change appearance. My grandmother, for example, had the most exquisite handwriting when I was young. As she aged and her arthritis worsened, however, you could barely read her signature. It leaves me to wonder, given that she was still alive at the onset of “signature match,” if her ballots were ever rejected in Richmond County? I would be disappointed to learn that was the case, so perhaps being ignorant to the fact is best. Yet, in comparing her signature in 1985 to her signature in 2010, the naked eye would plausibly believe the same person couldn’t have written both.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that willy-nilly, anyone-can-vote-with-no-ID is a good idea, and absentee ballots, coming in by mail, have less security, even when they are accompanied with a scanned copy of a driver’s license. However, I wonder what kinds of protections are in place for those among us who age, get sick, can’t write, etc.? I don’t want them disenfranchised, so I think that revisiting “signature match” during the next legislative session is a good idea.

Let’s pivot back to “exact match.” This covers the 53,000 pending registrations where folks can still vote, yet have to prove they are themselves. You have to hunt a little bit for that information, because early on, it was believed these folks couldn’t vote. Then, Kemp assured us they could. So, if you’re listed as pending, you can (and should!) vote. Yet, as I was untangling “exact match” truth from fiction, the thing that stopped me in my tracks was this piece posted at AllOnGeorgia, sent to them by VoterGA.org. Until this point, I had – admittedly, embarrassingly – been making a lot of assumptions. You know what they say about assumptions. Nonetheless, I was assuming that Kemp was just enforcing a law as written, and that he was unfairly being targeted as Brian the Boogeyman, Denier of Voters’ Rights to Cast Their Ballots, because it wasn’t his office’s decision. But that piece checked me. I should read the law. All of it.

I did, and you should, too.

Section 8’s language calls for verification, requiring “sufficient evidence” that the voter is the voter. The term “exact match” doesn’t appear. (“Matching” does appear once.) The “exact match” standard that the Secretary of State’s office is using to determine valid ballots is the strategy they have created to implement the “sufficient evidence” required by the law. However, to me, and I’ll bet to many others, “exact match” sounds more restrictive than “sufficient evidence.” So, why adopt something more restrictive than necessary, something that has targeted both less educated and nonwhite voters at demonstrably higher rates? Some folks are going to have less than charitable interpretations of that.

This kind of optics issue is one of the (good!) reasons why Karen Handel resigned as Secretary of State to run for Governor back in 2010. John Oxendine called her a quitter for doing it, and it backfired. Remember that? I do, and now Handel is in Congress, and very likely going back for a second term. The Ox? Well, he’s had better days…

Brian the Boogeyman is a bad look, which could have been easily avoided by following Handel’s example. I’m not sure what has been gained by staying in office as Secretary of State, but it’s undoubtedly given Kemp some headaches as he’s been accused repeatedly of repressing the vote and given Democrats extra ammunition in a state that, yes, despite what politicos keep asserting, is becoming increasingly less white and will eventually become purple to blue given the current demographic makeup of each party.


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