I’ve Been Rejected for An Invalid Signature: How GOP Voting Rules Stop Voting without Stopping Fraud

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Which signature is authentic?

Before 2020, I thought unnecessary paperwork was universally hated by all humans. Certainly it’s the bane of my existence: nothing enrages me like being asked to fill out some arcane form that serves no purpose, or being grilled by an official over some uncrossed “t” or un-dotted “i” because “that’s what the policy says”. I’ve been rejected over a mismatched signature that was obviously me, due to a bank’s insistence on protecting me from myself — more on that later. And does any of this do anything to prevent fraud? Probably not.

And until 2020, I thought Rwanda was the king of paperwork.

Anyone who’s ever done business here is familiar with the incredible array of forms, stamps, signatures, copies of ID, passport photos, mandates for “original documents” over photocopies, and more that make procedures that should take minutes take hours. Rwanda does a lot of things right, and their COVID response has been a shining example for the world, but there’s room to improve on the paperwork front.

To open a bank account, you must write a letter and get it notarized — is a notary somehow better able to verify my identity than the person at the bank? On top of this, the company name on the application must match the government record exactly — I’ve had to rewrite applications because I’d said “Co.” instead of “Company.” These rules do little to prevent fraud, but do make it harder to open a bank account.

To change a detail on a mobile money account for a business, you must stamp your forms — people love stamps. Now, the person receiving the form has no idea what the company’s authentic seal looks like, so anyone could put any stamp on the paper and it would be accepted. Again, the stamp does little to prevent fraud, but it does make it harder to use mobile money.

To cancel a check, you must sign and stamp a letter and hand-deliver it to the head office of the bank — despite the fact that this INCREASES the chances of fraud by making it harder to cancel a stolen check before it might be cashed.

And the most ineffective fraud prevention technique of them all is the signature: it’s simultaneously the easiest to fake and likeliest to be wrongly rejected.

It happened to me.

When COVID hit, I had two days to pack my bags and head to the UK. But I still had a business to run, and would still need to pay taxes, salaries, and suppliers from abroad. And the bank’s one-time password (OTP) by SMS would have prevented me from accessing my account from outside the country, which would have spelled the end of my business. To rectify this, I had to print, sign, stamp, scan, and email a letter to the bank requesting OTP by email. For good measure, I also sent stamped copies of my passport, drivers license, and the company certificate from the government.

Imagine my surprise when I received a call from the bank saying my signature didn’t match. I called the bank to protest, explained that their requirement could lead to nine staff not receiving salaries for months, but they were adamant. Their explanation: “we are protecting you from fraudsters.”

The person at the bank obviously knew that I was not a fraudster. They had received four forms of identification — including two forms of photo ID, both of which also had my signature — from the email address registered on the account. For someone to commit fraud, they would have had to steal my phone, hack my email address, steal the company stamp, find out my bank account number, and steal my passport, driver’s license, and company certificate — all of which together would be much harder than forging my signature. Not impossible of course, but incredibly unlikely.

While the risk of fraud was low, the consequences of rejecting my application were high, since it would prevent me from paying staff salaries, suppliers, and taxes. Clearly, no cost-benefit had been done weighing the benefits of fraud prevention against the costs of not being able to use the account.

And, even if there was a real risk of fraud, signature matching would have done little to actually prevent it. A signature is incredibly easy to forge: anyone who managed to get a document I signed could easily trace the signature and fool the bank. At the same time, a signature is also incredibly easy to mistakenly reject, as my case shows. My signature is basically an “A” with a squiggly line followed by a “K” with a squiggly line. I’m sure if I signed five pieces of paper, they’d all come out differently. And yet the bank thought they had the right to tell me what was or wasn’t my signature.

Clearly, as my case proves, empowering a fallible human to accept or reject a document based on a subjective determination of something as fluid as a signature is no basis for authenticating much of anything, especially not anything as important as a bank account — or a vote.

Yet it seems that in 2020, the US GOP is determined to take Rwanda’s crown as Kings of Unnecessary Paperwork, fighting legal battles over signatures on ballots and other technicalities in the name of fighting fraud.

Let’s be honest: like the bank representative, all of these lawyers, politicians, and judges know that voter fraud is incredibly rare; yes, it does happen, but not on a scale large enough to influence an election. And no wonder: just like forging a letter to my bank, ballot fraud is incredibly hard. You would need to find out a person’s address, get their Social Security number and birthdate, request a ballot mailed to their address, and finally go to their house and collect the mail-in ballot before they do — and none of this will work if the person in question has already requested a ballot. And that’s just for one ballot — to do this at scale, you’d have to repeat the process thousands of times. Only after doing all those steps does a signature, notary, or witness come into play — the technicalities most likely to disqualify a ballot are literally the least important measures for preventing fraud.

On the other hand, it’s incredibly easy for a well-meaning person to make a minor mistake on paperwork, or to have their signature vary slightly between documents.

My friends in Rwanda have had all sorts of trouble with this. Two friends mailed in ballots to Georgia, but we found out afterwards that the envelopes might be too big for the FVAP postage-paid envelope. Friends from Pennsylvania and Florida had trouble finding a printer that could print on an envelope, so they printed on paper and duct-taped it together to make an envelope. A friend from Texas received a PDF of his ballot, only it was mis-sized and too big to fit on a sheet of paper, so he had to shrink it down to print. Two friends in London, both lawyers, mailed in their ballots to Texas two weeks ago but haven’t received confirmation. They have since mailed in a back-up ballot, but couldn’t figure out exactly the rules for this — and they are lawyers. If lawyers can’t figure out the rules, how can anyone else?

Let me emphasize: these are all real ballots from real people. 100% not fraudulent. And yet there’s a reasonable chance these perfectly legitimate votes may not be counted due to technicalities. Voting should not be this hard!

As these cases show, given the difficulty of committing voter fraud and ease of making a mistake on paperwork, it’s simply a fact that most of the ballots rejected for a signature mismatch or other technicality will be perfectly legitimate. The non-partisan Brennan Center estimates that between 0.0003% and 0.0025% of all votes ever cast are fraudulent. But states are already rejecting ballots at many times this rate. In North Carolina, for example, between 1% and 3% of mail-in ballots have been rejected so far — which in a tight election could make a huge difference. Using the lower end of rejection figures and higher end for fraud, this would mean that out of all ballots disqualified due to a technicality, the state is likely rejecting 99.75% of legitimate ballots to prevent 0.25% that might be fraudulent.

So is it worth throwing out the 99.75% to prevent the 0.25%?

The GOP (and GOP judges) certainly claim so, just like the bank claimed it was worth shutting down my business to prevent an infinitesimal risk of fraud — “you can’t access your account, but hey, at least no one else can!”

But as should be obvious by now, this was never about preventing fraud. It’s about preventing voting. Nowhere is this more clear than Texas Republicans’ efforts not only to invalidate ballots due to signature mismatch, but also to prevent voters from “curing” those ballots. Even if there’s an argument for signatures to verify a ballot’s authenticity, there is no reasonable argument that giving a voter a chance to correct a mistake increases the risk of fraud. It would be like a student who’s just handed in a final exam and forgotten to put their name asking for a chance to correct this — and the teacher saying “no.”

Yet a federal appeals court — all Republican appointees — recently ruled that Texas voters should not be given the chance to correct their ballot, stating that “Texas’s strong interest in safeguarding the integrity of its elections from voter fraud far outweighs any burden the state’s voting procedures place on the right to vote.”

Really? Does the judge honestly believe that allowing someone to correct a mistake creates any potential for fraud?

At least the bank gave me a chance to “cure” my application for email OTP — they allowed me to deliver the letter in-person. Not the best solution during COVID, but at least I’d be able to access my account. If they’d followed the Texas judge’s logic, my business would have shut down.

Fraud prevention is of course important, but when fraud prevention measures are so onerous they get in the way of the act for which you’re trying to prevent fraud in the first place, it defeats the purpose — like a bank going so far to protect its customers’ money that it prevents them from accessing their own funds themselves.

I hope the irony of the party ostensibly in favor of removing red tape, reducing bureaucracy, and limiting government power is not lost on those trying to use the most ineffective forms of bureaucratic red tape to limit citizens’ power over the government.

The voting rules the GOP is pushing risk disenfranchising huge numbers of legitimate ballots to prevent a non-existent problem — and which do little to prevent the problem even if it existed.

Voting should be as easy as ordering a package on Amazon. The US needs an “innocent until proven guilty” principle when it comes to voting: a ballot should be assumed to be authentic unless the state can show compelling evidence that it is fraudulent. If Democrats win, making this so across the land must be the first order of business.

Written by

Born in Texas, raised in Oklahoma, working on solar energy and rural electrification in Africa, BA in Social Studies from Harvard

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