By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- The state and national Democratic parties are challenging a state law that denies some people the right to vote because they forgot to sign their mail-in ballots.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court here points out that state lawmakers last year agreed to require county election officials to give people five business days to "cure'' their ballots if it appears that the signature on the envelope does not match what is on file.
But attorney Alexis Danneman said Arizona law does not offer a similar option for those who simply failed to sign the envelope.
"If not remedied by 7 p.m. on Election Day, their votes are simply not counted,'' she wrote. "Voters who are in fact registered to vote, and who did in fact timely submit their mail ballots, will have their votes disregarded without due process.''
The issue, she said, is not academic.
Danneman said Maricopa County officials rejected 2,209 unsigned mail-in ballots in the 2016 general election and 1,856 two years later. Overall, she said, officials in the state's largest county rejected 18,420 mail ballots due to lack of signatures from 2008 through 2018.
And Danneman said this isn't just a Maricopa County problem. She said Pinal County officials rejected 131 ballot for missing signatures or similar reasons in 2018.
She wants a judge to order state and county election officials to provide those who did not sign their ballot envelopes that same five-day period to cure the problem as is available to those with mismatched signatures. And Danneman wants a court order barring enforcement of the law that requires election officials to reject unsigned mail ballots without first providing voters time to fix them.
The issue, she conceded is political.
"It is inevitable that Democrats, or those who would vote for Democrats, will not have their vote counted as a result of defendants' failure to allow voters to cure missing signatures after Election Day,'' Danneman wrote. The result, she said, is that the party will be less likely in its "mission to help elect Democratic candidates to public office.''
And she said there's a financial component to all this.
Danneman said the Arizona Democratic Party has had to spend extra money to educate voters to ensure that their votes are counted.
"For example, the Arizona Democratic Party anticipates needing to focus additional educational resources on areas of Arizona with low English literacy rates,'' she said. "This is dues to the heightened risk that voters in such areas will fail to understand mail ballot instructions, inadvertently mail the ballot without a signature, and be disenfranchised if their ballot is received with insufficient time to cure.''
In a prepared statement Felecia Rotellini, chair of the Arizona Democratic Party, called the rule "draconian'' and said it is "disenfranchising voters and making it harder for ballots to be cast and counted.''
Danneman also told the court that the relief being sought will not slow up election results, as the law already requires election officials to provide that five days for curing the mismatched signatures.
There was no immediate response from Secretary of State Katie Hobbs who is the state's chief election official. The lawsuit also names the recorders from the state's 15 counties.
Hobbs last year actually had proposed to require a cure period for unsigned ballots, putting a provision into the proposed Elections Manual, the procedure that all counties are supposed to follow. That came after a settlement of a lawsuit with the Navajo Nation about the issue of uncounted ballots.
But Hobbs withdrew the language following objections from Attorney General Mark Brnovich.
This isn't the first suit filed by Danneman's law firm of Perkins Coie over the question of whose vote gets to count.
Last year other attorneys from the firm sued Hobbs and others over a related law which says that mail ballots not received by 7 p.m. on Election Day do not count. They argued that the state has "no legitimate interest'' in enforcing the deadline, particularly when the state is encouraging people to cast their ballots by mail.
That lawsuit, filed on behalf of Voto Latino and Priorities USA, is asking a federal judge to require the counting of any ballots postmarked by the 7 p.m. deadline and received within five business days afterwards.
That case is still pending.