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Comparing signatures: Good enough to hang an election on?


Comparing signatures is assumed to be a foolproof method of verifying someone’s identity. Indeed, with a third of Florida voters now voting by mail, elections depend on it.

But in reality, it’s a poor way to confirm a voter’s identity, experts say, and it’s far less secure than showing an ID at the polls.

Elections workers charged with verifying signatures are not certified document examiners. And experts say those workers don’t have enough handwriting samples, training or time to thoroughly compare them.

“I don’t fault the supervisor of elections. … They’ve been burdened with having to do that,” said certified document examiner Tom Vastrick, based in Apopka, who has trained elections employees in various Florida counties. “This is something they have to do very quickly, so how diligently are they doing an examination?”

Some studies have shown that people without training make mistakes up to 40 percent of the time and have a tendency to accept mismatching signatures.

“The main error is people without training tend to over-associate,” Vastrick said. “They’ll say the writing is from the same writer when it isn’t.”

The Palm Beach Post saw it firsthand.

The Post reviewed eight ballots cast in a Boynton Beach neighborhood that County Commissioner Mack Bernard and state Rep. Al Jacquet dominated with absentee votes. Two appeared wildly different from the ones on file. Florida law prohibits copying ballot signatures, so reporters had to view the signatures in person.

One person’s signature on file was simply printed, “Frederick,” with no last name. But the signature on the ballot envelope appeared to be a full name signed in cursive.

For another man, who is blind and told The Post that Bernard signed his ballot, the signature on file also didn’t match the signature on the ballot envelope.

Both of those ballots were approved by elections workers.

‘An election was stolen from me’

In Riviera Beach last year, three erroneous signatures approved by the elections supervisor likely cost one of the candidates the race.

“I’m actually convinced that an election was stolen from me,” former Riviera Beach Councilman Bruce Guyton said. “Just taken from my grasp after all that hard work.”

Guyton ran for re-election in March 2016, tying Lynne Hubbard in a runoff. Suspicious, he found that her two brothers and a family friend had voted absentee from her 1,200-square-foot home.

He sued, claiming that the three people didn’t live there and didn’t cast the ballots. His lawyers discovered that one of the brothers was living outside Riviera Beach, and Hubbard’s campaign manager testified that Hubbard and a friend had signed the ballots.

The signatures seemed obviously different from the ones on file, too.

Guyton hired a certified document examiner who had trained Miami-Dade elections staff. She determined none of the three had signed the ballots.

After Circuit Judge Gregory Keyser looked over the signatures, he acknowledged that two of them “raise a question … whether the same individuals registered to vote in the city of Riviera Beach are the individuals who cast those votes.”

And one “voter” misspelled his own name.

But because the elections staff had approved the signatures, the judge refused to throw them out. Eventually, Guyton lost in a special election called to break the tie. Hubbard did not respond to requests for comment.

Guyton said he respected the judge’s decision and didn’t appeal it — partly because he already had spent close to $50,000 on lawyers and experts.

“That’s the breaks, I guess,” he said.

‘Vulnerable to manipulation’

For some countywide elections, Palm Beach County elections workers have to look at more than 100,000 ballots.

They do not conduct in-depth examinations for each one. Rather, they are looking at a computer screen, comparing a scan of the signature on the ballot envelope to a scan of the signature on file with the elections supervisor. The signature on file is usually the one used when the person registered to vote.

A forensic examiner wouldn’t do it that way. They would want to see many different handwriting samples, and not samples that have been scanned or copied, said Jim Josey, president of the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners.

But he understands that would be impractical. He compared the situation to bank tellers, who also have to look at signatures on checks. They aren’t forensic examiners, either.

“Screening it might not be the absolute best way, but it might be the only practical way,” he said.

Professionals receive roughly 4,000 hours of training before becoming certified. At most, elections staff might receive one day of training every year, Vastrick said. Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher said she recently provided her staff with more training.

But experts say almost no amount of training could overcome what is an obvious flaw in the system.

“Maybe the inherent problem is relying on signatures rather than some other biometric form of identification,” Vastrick said.

It’s “vulnerable to manipulation, both in the request for absentee ballots and how they’re being filled out,” said University of Florida Professor Daniel Smith, who specializes in elections and voting.

He said that while fraud is rare, when it does happen, it tends to happen among absentee ballots and in small races.

And he doesn’t understand why it’s tougher to vote in person than by mail.

“The logic is inverted,” he said. “If you’re in person, one would think you’d have a lower standard to prove your identity than if you’re absent.”



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