PANAMA CITY, Fla. -- As Florida’s voter registration deadline nears, the I-Team is digging deeper into the new training elections officials are getting to verify voters’ signatures.
Recently, I-Team investigator Adam Walser uncovered huge disparities in mail-in ballot rejection rates among Florida’s 67 counties.
Now, we're getting a rare look inside the state’s first official signature matching class, which could have an impact on how your vote is counted in what’s expected to be a close election.
Millions of mail-in ballots are pouring into county elections offices at record-shattering rates.
“We’re doing some targeted ads, some special educational brochures,” said Shelley Clark, President of the Bay County League of Women Voters.
Her organization is urging voters to update their signatures and get their ballots back three weeks early.
Her own mom, 89-year-old Estoria Clark, is among those voters.
She is concerned because she has an intricate kind of signature
A recent University of Florida study found mail-in ballots from minorities are twice as likely to be rejected. Older voters also have a higher rejection rate.
And Bay County had Florida’s second-highest rejection rate during the 2018 election, which Clark attributes to Hurricane Michael striking the Panhandle weeks before the election.
“We’ve talked about that, her signature. You know, making sure that it’s the same,” said Clark. “I asked her about it and we looked at it.”
It can often be tough, even for professionals, to judge whether a signature is authentic.
“No one writes exactly the same way twice, so how do we assess a writer’s variation?” asked handwriting expert Tom Vastrick.
The state hired Vastrick to come up with a crash course in signature matching for election officials, including supervisors of elections and members of local elections canvassing boards.
Those are the only people, under Florida election law, who can reject a ballot.
“The people require some level of training to be able to do this,” Vastrick said during an interview with I-Team investigative reporter Adam Walser.
Florida lawmakers amended the election code last year, to make signature matching training mandatory for certain elections officials, but they offered little guidance as to what that training would include.
Vastrick says to be an expert in the field, someone would need the equivalent of 24 months of training.
Vastrick’s first class, given last October, lasted one hour and 47 minutes.
“I’m not training the people at the elections commission to be forensic document examiners. I’m training them in the process of accepting or rejecting a ballot,” Vastrick said.
“We’re gonna break it down into its elements,” Vastrick said in the video of the class.
He then delivered a 116-page Power Point presentation, which covers handwriting systems, deviations, spacing, letter height ratio, baseline habits, letter connections, initial and terminal strokes, pen pressure, letter design, slant, variation, evolution over time and pen lifts.
And lots of time was spent on forgery.
“We’re going to do quite a number of case reviews,” Vastrick told the class.
“There are four different ways of committing forgery and I teach them what the characteristics of each of them are,” he said.
“I have found numerous ballots that were not genuine,” Vastrick said, when asked whether he had ever caught anyone cheating during an election.
Vastrick says he has been hired as a handwriting expert to consult election officials in multiple Florida counties and in other states.
In less than two hours, the class of elections officials reviewed more than 200 signatures, trying to determine which were legitimate and which were forged.
“The training was good. I attended in person,” said Sarasota Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner.
“Whether that’s a slant a certain way, whether that’s above or below the line. How you dot I’s and cross t’s,” Turner said, when asked what he remembers about the class.
But forensic document examiner Cina Wong believes he may be in the minority.
“it was a lot of information. Too much,” Wong said.
Wong testified about the infamous ransom note in a civil trial related to the Jonbenet Ramsey murder.
She says Vastrick’s class covered too many topics too quickly.
“You can’t control, when people are in the seminar, whether they are going to pay attention or not,” Wong said.
And after viewing Vastrick’s class online, she said some of the participants appeared to be blindly guessing which signatures matched and which ones didn’t.
“They were not told why they got it right or why they got it wrong,” Wong said.
And at the end of the training, none of the participants were tested on their knowledge.
“I’m not part of that process,” Vastrick said.
A spokesperson for the Florida Department of State, which oversees elections, sent the following statement regarding that process:
Supplemental training in signature verification may be held at the discretion of each county’s Supervisor. Additionally, some SOEs use automated signature verification software to complement the manual verification at the outset.
The training program provided to Supervisors and Canvassing Board Members does not offer a post training test component. Supplemental training may be offered before every major election cycle at the canvassing board workshops, particularly as canvassing board members change.
If a signature cannot be verified in the initial review by a staff member at the Supervisor of Elections Office, it goes to the canvassing board for determination of which the supervisor is a member.
“If they know that they are going to be tested at the end, I can tell you a lot more people are going to be paying attention,” Wong said.
Florida’s signature matching training was a bargain.
The state paid Vastrick $2,000.
That’s less than $30 per county.
And Vastrick also provided a nearly identical refresher course posted on YouTube.
He pointed out that signature matching is just a single component of the process.
As we reported last month, if elections officials can’t make a match, they will contact the voter and ask them to provide an ID and fill out what’s called a ballot cure affidavit, in which a voter fills out a form attesting to their signature.
That process is also used if a ballot is unsigned, but the voter provides their contact information on the outside of the envelope.
And only the county canvassing boards can officially reject ballots.
“I think that it’s ok that you can spend an hour or two or even an extra step to make sure your vote counts,” Vastrick said of the cure process.
But the elections office must receive cure affidavits before 5 p.m. on November 5 for the votes to be counted.
Shelley Clark says she is urging voters not to cut it close.
“This is part of why we emphasize October 13,” she said.
“It’s kind of like the wild, wild west… do as you please or do the best you can,” Wong said of Florida’s initial signature matching training.
She says rejected ballots could make a difference in a very close election.
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