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"The Arizona Legislature must do the right thing and vote against this unconscionable bill," a Brennan Center for Justice expert writes of S.B. 1241. (Photo: DustyPixel)

Arizona Bill Would Refer Mismatched Mail Ballot Signatures to Prosecutors

Turning simple signature issues into a potential criminal matter would discourage people from voting.

The Arizona Legislature is continuing its attack on voting by mail. In a party-line vote, the state house advanced a bill that would turn allegedly mismatched signatures on mail ballots into potential criminal cases. Variation in signatures—a common and generally harmless occurrence—should not subject voters to the threat of prosecution.

The legislation is part of a wave of bills from GOP state lawmakers nationwide to make it harder for Americans to vote, all fueled by the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen.

The legislation is part of a wave of bills from GOP state lawmakers nationwide to make it harder for Americans to vote, all fueled by the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen. It comes just weeks after Arizona enacted a law that will remove large numbers of voters from a popular list that allows them to automatically receive vote-by-mail ballots.

S.B. 1241 imposes a new requirement on county recorders to refer voters for "possible investigation" to prosecutors if they fail to remedy —or “cure”—a mismatched signature. Currently, county recorders verify mail ballots by comparing the signature on the mail ballot envelope with the voter's signature in the county records. Should the county recorder determine that the mail ballot signature is inconsistent with previous signatures, the office must contact the voter, advise them of the perceived inconsistency, and inform the voter of the ability to remedy or cure the signature.

The deadline for a voter to contact the county and remedy the mismatched signature is three to five days after an election, depending on the election. If the statutory deadline expires and the voter has not cured the perceived discrepancy, under existing law, the vote is not counted and that's where it should end. Instead, S.B. 1241 would compel the county to send a copy of the mail ballot affidavit and other signature records to the county attorney or attorney general for "possible investigation." In other words, according to Republicans in the Arizona Legislature, a voter who fails to cure a signature is suspected of criminal conduct.

There simply is no basis to assume that a voter who cannot address an alleged signature discrepancy in a mail ballot should be suspected of a crime. First, a voter may be unable to correct or confirm the signature discrepancy quickly for dozens of reasons, not the least of which is being away from home —that's why many people vote by mail in the first place.

Second, signatures vary over time for most people but especially for certain groups. Elderly voters, voters with disabilities or health conditions, and voters who use a language other than English have their signatures rejected at disproportionately higher rates than other voters. These voters will be at greater risk for a criminal investigation if this bill passes.

Moreover, signature verification of mail ballots can result in arbitrary or erroneous conclusions that a person's signature is inconsistent with a previous one. And this risk is real in Arizona because the Legislature has not codified any standards to guide officials as they examine ballot signatures.

Before it can become law, S.B. 1241 must pass another floor vote in the House and then will return to the Senate for concurrence in the amendments. If the Senate passes the bill, it will be sent to the governor for signature.

This bill takes the Republican obsession with imagined election fraud to the next level, and the resulting fear of prosecution will deter people from exercising their right to vote. Enough is enough. The Arizona Legislature must do the right thing and vote against this unconscionable bill.

© 2021 Brennan Center for Justice
Marian K. Schneider

Marian K. Schneider

Marian K. Schneider is an adviser for the Voting Rights and Elections Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

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