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A voter in Philadelphia returns their mail-in ballot. | Mark Makela/Getty Images

It’s a blow for Republicans who challenged the state’s guidance that different-looking signatures shouldn’t be disqualifying.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Friday that mail-in ballots cannot be rejected if a voter’s signature looks different than the one on their registration form.

The ruling came after Pennsylvania’s Democratic Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, the state’s top election official, turned to the court for clarity on the legality of her signature-matching policy. She introduced guidance in September that said ballots shouldn’t be thrown out due to mismatched signatures, and has since been mired in a legal battle with President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and other Republicans.

The court decision — backed by five Democrat and two Republican justices — marks a victory for Democrats and voting-rights advocates in a critical battleground state Trump won by roughly 44,000 votes in 2016. It comes on the heels of another loss for Republicans in the state: the October 19 order by the US Supreme Court, which let stand a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that mailed-in ballots received up to three days after Election Day must be counted.

“County boards of elections are prohibited from rejecting absentee or mail-in ballots based on signature comparison conducted by county election officials or employees, or as the result of third-party challenges based on signature analysis and comparisons,” the court wrote, upholding Boockvar’s guidance.

“If the Voter’s Declaration on the return envelope is signed and the county board is satisfied that the declaration is sufficient, the mail-in or absentee ballot should be approved for canvassing unless challenged in accordance with the Pennsylvania Election Code,” Boockvar wrote in September. “The Pennsylvania Election Code does not authorize the county board of elections to set aside returned absentee or mail-in ballots based solely on signature analysis by the county board of elections.”

Over 1.4 million Pennsylvanians have already submitted mail ballots, according to the US Elections Project, the overwhelming majority of which have been sent by registered Democrats.

Pennsylvania and other states across the US are expecting an unprecedented surge in mail ballots as voters attempt to find ways to avoid in-person voting due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Signature-matching processes are a contentious issue because, as political scientists and voting rights advocates point out, election officials who are likely to reject far more authentic signatures than false ones in an electoral system in which fraud is exceedingly rare.

As The Atlantic reported, a Carroll College political scientist working on behalf of plaintiffs challenging a signature-matching law in Ohio calculated that there was a 97 percent chance that a given ballot in Ohio rejected on the basis of a signature mismatch was wrongly rejected. And in 2016, perceived signature mismatches constituted the biggest reason mail ballots were disqualified.

Voting rights advocates have also pointed out that signature matching processes are likely to disproportionately exclude authentic signatures from very young voters, very old voters, disabled voters, and voters of color.

In battleground states — like Pennsylvania — with potentially razor thin margins between candidates, policies surrounding matching signatures could play a decisive role in the outcome of the election. With a significant 20 electoral votes at stake, and an ideologically heterogeneous population, Pennsylvania’s laws on including ballots are particularly pivotal. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages, Democratic nominee Joe Biden holds a 6 point lead in the polls over Trump in Pennsylvania — but both candidates have made the state a focus in the final days ahead of the election, hoping to win over new supporters.


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Author: Zeeshan Aleem

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