Lake County absentee ballot from 2020 primary election. (Joe Puchek / Post-Tribune)
Lake County absentee ballot from 2020 primary election. (Joe Puchek / Post-Tribune)
A disabled retired Gary police officer and his brother and nephew – who all live in the same household – recently received letters stating that their ballots for the 2020 primary election didn’t count because of signature issues.

According to the letter from the Lake County Election and Voter Registration Board, their signatures on the ballot application and the ballot envelope did not match so their ballot was rejected. In total, there are five reasons a ballot can be rejected: an unsigned ballot envelope, an unsigned absentee ballot application, signatures not matching, no power of attorney enclosed and no ballot card, according to a county election letter.

Of the 27,338 absentee ballots received, approximately 700 absentee ballots were rejected, for various reasons, said Lake County Election and Voter Registration Board Assistant Director LeAnn Angerman.

On Election Day, poll workers look for the signatures on the ballot application and ballot envelope to correspond, Angerman said. If the signatures don’t look similar, the poll workers take the ballot application and the ballot envelope to a team of election board members – one Democrat and on Republican – to review and determine if the ballot should be rejected.

The election board members follow state statute, which states that if the signatures don’t correspond or if a signature is missing the ballot has to be rejected, Angerman said. In a typical election, there is one team of election board members reviewing signatures brought to their attention, but with the large number of absentee ballots received in the 2020 primary there were two teams of election board members reviewing signatures, she said.

“I have great confidence in our election board that is bipartisan. They do not create the law but they do follow it,” Angerman said.

Tim Somers, 61, of Griffith, said he was surprised to learn his ballot was rejected based on his signature since he has voted absentee in previous elections due to his disability. But, once his brother and nephew opened their letters, Tim Somers said he became concerned about voter suppression.

“We all three live in the same house and we all three got letters that our ballots were rejected because of our signatures,” Tim Somers said. “Up until yesterday, I thought my vote counted.”

After receiving the letter, Tim Somers said he called the state Election Division and spoke with someone who confirmed he had a record of voting absentee and recommended he file paperwork stating his signature could be slightly different between the ballot application and the ballot envelope given his disability.

“He was trying to find ways to justify it, but he was running into dead ends,” Tim Somers said.

Tom Somers, Tim Somers brother, said he voted absentee because he didn’t want to vote in-person due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, the state Election Commission issued an order that voters could vote by mail in the primary “without having a specific reason to do so.”

As a regular voter, Tom Somers, 60, said he was surprised his ballot didn’t count because there are records of his signature from previous elections. Tom Somers said he filled out and signed his application to receive the absentee ballot with a pen.

“Why didn’t they call me right away? Why wait until after the election?,” Tom Somers said about receiving the letter that his application was rejected.

Tom Somers said he is concerned that with his son’s ballot being rejected over a signature he won’t want to vote again.

Indiana University Northwest Associate Professor of Economics Micah Pollak said he also received a letter that his ballot was rejected, which confused him. Pollak said that he voted absentee for the first time because of the pandemic.

Pollak said he was careful to follow all the steps on the application process, and that he filled the application out as a PDF on a tablet. He signed the application with a tablet pen, but said he was careful to ensure the signature looked authentically like his own.

“That might have been part of the problem, (but) it is what I would recognize as my signature,” Pollak said.

Pollack said he heard back from Election and Voter Registration Board staff, who walked him through the fact that his signatures didn’t compare because he signed on the tablet.

“They were really transparent,” Pollak said. “I understand it’s something I did, but I just didn’t know about comparing signatures.”

Angerman said she’d recommend all voters fill out a paper application so that the signature is done with a pen. But, Angerman said human error is a possibility during the election process, from a voter not sending back an absentee ballot to reviewing signatures.

“Whenever you introduce human effort, you introduce the possibility of human error,” Angerman said.

But, the Somers brothers and Pollak all said they would vote in person in the November election to ensure their ballot is cast.

“I’m probably going to have to vote in person, but that’s not ideal because of COVID,” Tom Somers said about voting in November.

Though it would be difficult for him, Tim Somers said he’d find a way to vote in person in November.

“If I have to crawl to vote I will because my vote has to count. They can’t take it away from me again,” Tim Somers said.
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