PANAMA CITY, FL – Right before the Florida voter registration deadline, the I-Team is digging deeper into the new training elections that require officials to verify voter signatures.
Recently, I-Team investigator Adam Walser found large differences in the rejection rates for postal ballots in the 67 counties in Florida.
Now we’re getting a rare glimpse into the state’s first official signature-matching class, which could affect how your vote is counted in an expected tight election.
Millions of postal ballot papers are pouring into the district’s election offices at record-breaking rates.
“We’re doing some targeted ads, some special educational brochures,” said Shelley Clark, president of the Bay County League of Women Voters.
Your organization is asking voters to update their signatures and get their ballots back three weeks early.
Her own mother, 89-year-old Estoria Clark, is one of those voters.
She is concerned because she has a complicated type of signature
A recent study at the University of Florida found that minority voting cards were twice as likely to be rejected. Older voters also have a higher rate of rejection.
And Bay County had Florida’s second highest rejection rate in the 2018 election, which Clark attributes to Hurricane Michael, which hit the panhandle weeks before the election.
“We talked about it, her signature. You have to make sure it’s the same,” said Clark. “I asked her about it and we looked at it.”
Even for professionals, it can often be difficult to judge whether a signature is authentic.
“Nobody writes exactly the same way twice. So how do we judge a writer’s variation?” asked handwriting expert Tom Vastrick.
The state hired Vastrick to devise a crash course on signature matching for election officials, including election officers and members of local elections.
These are the only people who can opt out of a vote under Florida Electoral Law.
“People need a certain amount of training to do this,” Vastrick said during an interview with I-Team’s investigative reporter Adam Walser.
Florida lawmakers changed the electoral code last year to make signature-matching training mandatory for certain electoral officials. However, they gave little guidance on what that training would entail.
Vastrick says that to be an expert in the field would take someone the equivalent of 24 months of training.
Vastrick’s first class last October lasted one hour and 47 minutes.
“I don’t train people on the electoral board to be forensic auditors. I train them to accept or reject a ballot,” Vastrick said.
“We’re going to break it down into its elements,” Vastrick said in the class video.
He then delivered a 116-page Power Point presentation that covered handwriting systems, deviations, spacing, letter height ratio, baseline habits, letter combinations, beginning and ending strokes, pen pressure, letter design, inclination, variation, development over time, and pen lifts.
And a lot of time was spent on counterfeiting.
“We’re going to be doing a number of case meetings,” Vastrick told the class.
“There are four different ways of committing counterfeiting and I teach them the characteristics of each,” he said.
“I found numerous ballots that were fake,” said Vastrick when asked if he had ever caught someone cheating in an election.
Vastrick says he was hired as a handwriting expert to consult with electoral officials in several Florida counties and other states.
In less than two hours, the electoral class checked more than 200 signatures to see which were legitimate and which were fake.
“The training was good. I took part in person, ”said Sarasota Election Officer Ron Turner.
“Whether that’s a certain bias, whether that’s over or under the line. How you do I’s and Cross’s,” Turner said when asked what he remembered about the class.
However, forensic document examiner Cina Wong believes he may be in the minority.
“There was a lot of information. Too much, ”said Wong.
Wong testified about the infamous ransom note in a civil case related to the murder of Jonbenet Ramsey.
She says Vastrick’s class covered too many subjects too quickly.
“You can’t control when people are in seminar, whether they’re paying attention or not,” said Wong.
And after watching Vastrick’s class online, she said some of the attendees seemed blindly guessing which signatures matched and which didn’t.
“They weren’t told why they got it right or why they got it wrong,” said Wong.
And at the end of the training, none of the participants was tested on their knowledge.
“I’m not part of that process,” said Vastrick.
A Florida State Department spokesman, which oversees the elections, made the following statement regarding the process:
Additional signature verification training can be provided at the discretion of each county manager. Additionally, some SOEs use automated signature verification software to complement the initial manual verification.
The training program for supervisors and members of the acquisition board does not offer a test component after the training. Additional training courses can be offered in the acquisition board workshops before each major election cycle, especially if the members of the acquisition board change.
If a signature cannot be verified when it is first verified by an election inspector, it is sent to the advertising committee to determine which manager is on it.
“When they know they will end up being tested, I can tell you a lot more people will be watching,” said Wong.
Florida’s signature matching training was a bargain.
The state paid Vastrick $ 2,000.
That’s less than $ 30 per county.
And Vastrick also offered a nearly identical refresher course that was posted on YouTube.
He pointed out that signature matching is just a single component of the process.
As we reported last month, if election officials are unable to make a match, they will contact the voter and ask them to produce identification and fill out what is known as a sworn affidavit, in which a voter fills out a form confirming their signature.
This procedure 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 Adquassing Boards can officially reject ballots.
“I think it’s okay that you could spend an hour or two, or even an extra step, making sure your voice counts,” Vastrick said of the healing process.
However, the election office must receive an affidavit before 5 p.m. on November 5th for the vote count.
Shelley Clark says she is urging voters not to close it.
“This is part of the reason we emphasize October 13,” she said.
“It’s like the wild, wild west … do what you want or do the best you can,” said Wong of Florida’s first signature-matching training.
She says rejected ballots could make a difference in a very close election.
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