SLS Students Help Rewrite California’s Election Laws—Just in Time for the 2020 Election

In fall 2019, Stanford Law & Policy practicum students studied how California election officials use voters’ signatures to verify vote-by-mail ballots. Over the next year, their efforts helped the California Secretary of State rewrite the state’s election regulations—just in time for the 2020 presidential election.

Historically, American voters did not have much choice in how, where, or when to vote: They voted in person, at designated polling places, on Election Day. But in recent years, Congress and state legislatures have provided voters with a more flexible array of voting options, including opportunities to vote by mail. The options vary significantly by state, but in recent elections about a quarter of American voters and 65 percent of California voters cast their ballots by mail. These percentages have dramatically increased during the 2020 election as California and other states expand vote-by-mail options in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

But with the wider adoption of voting by mail comes an urgent administrative problem: how to securely conduct a remote election. Any ballots cast outside the polling place are inherently more difficult to verify than in-person voting. Without robust verification practices, vote-by-mail processes could undermine public trust and the integrity of the democratic process.

SLS Students Help Rewrite California’s Election Laws—Just in Time for the 2020 Election 3
Policy lab students on a tour of the San Mateo County Elections Office: Garrett Jensen (MPP/ma ’20), Emily Postman, JD ’21, Will Janover, JD ’21, Zahavah Levine (MA ’20), and Tom Westphal, JD/MIP ’21 (photo courtesy of Stanford Law and Policy Lab)

At a superficial level, this is straightforward enough. People generally reproduce their signatures in a similar fashion each time they sign a ballot. And if would-be fraudsters were to steal or otherwise obtain someone else’s ballot, they would have a hard time immediately knowing how to sign the name in a way that was close enough to the signature on file so as to escape scrutiny.

But a closer examination reveals a host of potentially vexing questions. What exactly does it mean to find two signatures “similar”? Who gets to set the standard for comparison? And which signatures should be compared against the voter’s ballot envelope? What if a voter’s signature has changed over time? What if the original signature on file is not clearly legible due to a low-resolution electronic signature pad at the DMV?

In spring 2019, students in the Stanford Law School Election Law Project (ELP) examined a range of potential projects related to American elections. A student team reported back to the group about a 2014 study by the California Voter Foundation, “Improving California’s Vote-by-Mail Process: A Three-County Study,” which highlighted wide variability in how the state’s counties verify signatures on absentee ballots before counting them. This raised an obvious question: Would similarly situated voters in different counties have their votes treated differently? Little other research was available on the topic. And no California counties had publicly available materials that explained their processes—complicating efforts to understand how they might impact voters.

In another context, this issue might be the kind that only lawyers could find fascinating. But the consequences of these policies are not abstract. When some voters’ ballots are being counted and others set aside, their significance is clear. And though this issue impacts a relatively small percentage of voters, in a populous state like California, they can number in the thousands. In the March 2020 primary, for example, roughly 14,000 ballots across California were rejected for non-matching signatures.

ELP students agreed to examine the issue closer. That effort evolved into an SLS Policy Lab: the Every Vote Counts project, advised by Professor Nate Persily [James B. McClatchy Professor of Law] and Luciana Herman [Policy Lab program director]. Through a study of California’s county elections offices, an interdisciplinary team of 15 students—including law students, graduate students, and undergraduates—examined the legal and political dynamics around signature verification and the process for fixing a non-matching signature. The project was one of the first Law and Policy Lab practicums to be proposed and led by students, who rapidly developed expertise in arcane and complex areas of California election protocols. Our student research team interviewed election officials across the state about standards and procedures, receiving guidance throughout by scholars and experts in the field.

By the end of the fall 2019 quarter, students had interviewed election officials from 33 of California’s 58 counties, along with several nationwide election administration and voting rights experts. County registrars of voters were, on the whole, enthusiastic about our project, willing to talk openly about their procedures, and they impressed us with their deep commitment to public service. In March 2020, our team published a report (“Signature Verification and Mail Ballots: Guaranteeing Access While Preserving Integrity”) offering guidance to county election administrators, the California Secretary of State, the California Legislature, and voters themselves to improve signature verification procedures statewide.

The report’s release coincided with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. With states around the country foreseeing demand from voters, poll workers, and public health officials for voting by mail due to the pandemic, signature verification practices escalated rapidly in importance. The report’s timing and the dearth of other research available on the subject increased its visibility.

By late March, Professor Persily and one SLS student, Tom Westphal, were asked to join the California Secretary of State’s Working Group on Emergency Election Preparedness. Through that group, they were able to introduce the report’s recommendations directly to policymakers, including the California Secretary of State’s office, during a time when every aspect of voting was being comprehensively re-examined.

In late September 2020, the Secretary of State’s office completed a public comment period and announced emergency regulations that, for the first time, establish statewide standards for vote-by-mail signature verification. These standards make the process both more consistent and more inclusive. Implemented just in time for the 2020 presidential election, these regulations applied to every vote-by-mail ballot cast in California, impacting over 21 million registered voters. With these new standards, it is likely that fewer vote-by-mail ballots were erroneously rejected for nonmatching signatures in November.  SL