FARGO — The League of Women Voters of North Dakota has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court claiming the way the state handles vote-by-mail ballots is flawed and leads to some ballots being unfairly rejected.
The suit notes that upcoming elections in North Dakota will be conducted entirely by mail due to the coronavirus and because of that, voters face the risk of being disenfranchised by the state's "error-prone" signature matching verification process.
Under current law, when an absentee ballot is submitted, local election officials must compare the signature the voter provided on their ballot envelope to the one on their absentee ballot application form.
The suit maintains that if an official deems the signatures do not "correspond," the ballot is rejected and the voter who cast the ballot is not informed there was an issue, nor are they provided a chance to clear up the problem and have their vote count.
According to the suit, the state rejects hundreds of ballots cast by eligible North Dakota voters every election "because of this unreliable ballot verification process, disproportionately disenfranchising voters prone to signature variability, specifically people with disabilities, non-native English speakers and both young and elderly voters."
The lawsuit names North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger and other officials as defendants. Jaeger declined Tuesday, May 5, to comment on the suit.
In addition to the League of Women Voters, other plaintiffs in the suit include Maria Fallon Romo, of Grand Forks, who is described in the suit as having multiple sclerosis. As a result of her condition, the suit says, it is difficult for Romo to write neatly or consistently.
According to the suit, Romo cast an absentee ballot in October 2018 well in advance of the deadline and she believed her vote in that election was counted. However, the lawsuit says, Romo recently learned her ballot was not counted and that a signature issue was to blame.
If Romo had received notice of an alleged mismatched signature on her voter affidavit, she would have taken steps to confirm her signature and make sure her ballot was counted, the suit maintains.
Romo plans to vote in the June 9 election as well as other future elections and she "fears that she will be disenfranchised yet again if she votes by mail and an election official determines that her signatures do not correspond," the suit states.
Self Advocacy Solutions, a Grand Forks-based nonprofit that advocates for individuals with disabilities, is also a plaintiff in the suit, which asks the court to bar election officials from rejecting ballots on the basis of signature verification failure without providing voters adequate notice and a chance to fix the problem.
It also asks the court to require Jaeger to issue guidance to county election officials instructing them to provide all voters adequate and meaningful notice and an opportunity to fix a signature problem before rejecting a ballot.