By Tom Ozimek
A judge has found that Arizona’s signature matching process for mail-in ballots is unlawful, delivering what the plaintiffs in the lawsuit called a “massive win” for election integrity.
Yavapai County Superior Court Judge John Napper issued a ruling last week (pdf) in a lawsuit against Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes brought by public interest group Restoring Integrity and Trust in Elections (RITE), which alleged that Mr. Fontes broke the law regarding mail-in ballot signature verification procedures.
Specifically, the group argued that Mr. Fontes’ interpretation of “registration record” in the Secretary of State’s Elections Procedures Manual was unreasonably broad and improperly expanded the pool of signatures to which an early ballot affidavit signature could be compared, increasing the risk of false positives.
“While state law requires county recorders to match mail-ballot signatures with signatures in the voter’s ‘registration record,’ the Secretary instructed them to use a broader and less reliable universe of comparison signatures,” RITE said in a Sept. 5 statement on the court ruling.
“That means the Secretary was requiring ballots to be counted despite using a signature that did not match anything in the voter’s registration record. This was a clear violation of state law,” the group added.
Former gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who sued Mr. Fontes and Maricopa County officials over the signature verification process that was used in last year’s election, took to X to post about the decision.
“A court just found that Arizona’s signature matching process is UNLAWFUL,” Ms. Lake said.
“This is what happens when you don’t back down from a fight,” the Kari Lake War Room account said in a post on X.
Mr. Fontes’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.
Dispute Over ‘Registration Record’
Court documents show that Mr. Fontes argued that the legal definition of “registration record” is ambiguous and so he is entitled to provide guidance on its interpretation.
“Does the legislature’s use of the expansive term registration ‘record’ really mean the more restrictive (but unused) term registration ‘form’ for purposes of verifying a signature on an early voted ballot,” reads a motion to dismiss (pdf) the RITE lawsuit filed by Mr. Fontes’ attorneys.
“The answer is ‘no,'” the attorneys argued, listing reasons that include the Secretary of State’s statutory authority to conduct elections fairly and impartially.
But the judge disagreed with the reasoning.
“This argument fails because there is no ambiguity in the statute,” Mr. Napper wrote in his opinion.
He added that the Arizona “statute is clear and unambiguous” in that it requires the recorder to “review the voter’s registration card” and not other documents bearing the voter’s signature.
Mr. Napper also noted that Mr. Fontes’ signature-matching process in the Election Procedures Manual “contradicts the plain language” of Arizona elections laws by allowing signature matching with documents that have “nothing to do with the act of registering.”
Accordingly, the judge denied Mr. Fontes’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
In a statement, Derek Lyons, CEO of RITE, called the decision a “huge victory toward securing the elections that Arizonans deserve, which are elections they can trust.”
“RITE will build on this victory to continue to fight in court for elections that are administered according to democratically enacted laws, not illegal partisan commands,” he added.
The group said in a statement that the ruling shows that Mr. Fontes must change his signature verification procedures before the next election to “protect the integrity of Arizona’s mail-in balloting process” or face further legal consequences.
It’s unclear whether the ruling will have any implications for Ms. Lake’s lawsuit against Mr. Fontes and Maricopa County officials over the signature verification process that was used in last year’s gubernatorial election.
Kari Lake Angle
Election data from the November 2022 election shows that Ms. Lake was behind Democrat Katie Hobbs—who has since been declared Arizona governor—by about 17,000 votes.
Ms. Lake and her legal team argued there was a flood of mail-in ballots in Maricopa County at a time when there were too few workers to verify ballot signatures properly.
Her lawyers contended that there was evidence that lower-level screeners who found inconsistencies in signatures ran them up the chain of command, where they were ignored by higher-level verifiers.
Ms. Lake’s campaign team shared a video of what appears to be a signature reviewer clicking through signatures quickly, about one per second, suggesting that the reviewers weren’t “treating the integrity of your vote with the respect it deserves.”
Her attorneys argued that Maricopa County officials ultimately accepted thousands of ballots that had been rejected earlier by workers for having mismatched signatures.
Ms. Lake sued Ms. Hobbs, along with Mr. Fontes and Maricopa County election officials, requesting last year’s election results be thrown out or that she be declared the winner.
But Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Peter A. Thompson ruled against Ms. Lake, arguing that her team provided insufficient evidence to back their claim and that the short time spent on verifying each signature wasn’t relevant and so didn’t amount to a violation of the law.
Mr. Thompson also wrote in the ruling that the order amounts to “confirming the election of Katie Hobbs as Arizona Governor.”
On May 31, Ms. Lake filed a notice of appeal, with litigation ongoing.