Willkie Contributes to Federal Court Win Expanding Protection for Mail-in Ballots

September 11, 2020

In a key voting rights victory, a Texas federal court enjoined Texas’s use of unconstitutional signature-matching procedures for mail-in ballots that have historically disenfranchised thousands of voters every election cycle.

On September 8, Willkie and the Texas Civil Rights Project obtained a major victory for their clients when a Texas federal court ruled that state officials must notify voters if their ballot has been marked for rejection due to a perceived signature match discrepancy, giving voters an opportunity to confirm that they cast the ballot in question and save their ballot from rejection. In his decision, US District Court Judge Orlando Garcia ruled that the current process state election officials use violates the constitutional rights of Texas voters and creates an undue burden on the right to vote because it does not provide a method for a voter to fix, or “cure,” a perceived signature issue.

When casting ballots by mail, Texas law requires voters to sign their ballot envelope, and that signature is used to verify their identity against other voter signatures on file with local elections officials. This process can result in improper rejections of legitimately-cast ballots, however, when voters’ signatures change or otherwise vary, they have a disability that inhibits them from writing consistently, or when local election officials—who are not trained in signature analysis—simply mistakenly determine that a voter’s signature doesn’t match.

The case, Richardson v. Texas Secretary of State, was brought in 2019 on behalf of Dr. George Richardson and Rosalie Weisfeld, two Texas voters who had properly submitted their mail-in ballots but whose ballots were each rejected because a panel incorrectly decided the signatures on their ballot envelope and application did not match. These plaintiffs were joined by a number of voting rights organizations: the League of Women Voters of Texas, Austin Justice Coalition, Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, and MOVE Texas Civic Fund.

This week’s court ruling requires the Texas Secretary of State to advise all local election officials that they are barred under the Constitution from rejecting a ballot without first notifying the voter and allowing them an opportunity to cure their ballot. Specifically, voters must be notified via mail and phone within one day of the potential rejection, and the notice must clearly advise the voter on how to contact their local election official to cure their ballot. The requirements will apply to upcoming 2020 elections.

Willkie worked with pro bono partner the Texas Civil Rights Project in representing the plaintiffs. The Willkie team was led by partner Richard Mancino and included partners Archie Fallon and Jennifer Hardy, counsel Garrett Johnston, and associates Samuel Kalar, JoAnna Suriani, and Audra White.

The decision has received notable news coverage, including in an ABCnews.com article which interviewed Mr. Mancino on the decision and its widespread impact on voters.