Grand Forks woman listed as plaintiff in North Dakota voting lawsuit
Maria Fallon Romo, who has difficulty writing neatly and consistently due to multiple sclerosis, said her absentee ballot in North Dakota's 2018 election was voided because her signature did not correspond with the signature on her ballot application. She is now the plaintiff in a lawsuit that alleges North Dakota's "error-prone" signature verification process disenfranchises vulnerable voters.
When Maria Fallon Romo cast her absentee ballot in Grand Forks County in 2018, she always assumed her vote had been counted. She didn't find out it hadn't been until the Campaign Legal Center contacted her in April, asking if she wanted to be involved in a lawsuit for her discarded vote.
Romo's ballot was discarded because her signature did not correspond with the signature on her ballot application. After learning her ballot hadn't been counted in 2018, Romo reviewed her voter affidavit and ballot application and confirmed that the ballot that had been submitted was her own, according to the lawsuit complaint. Romo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1997 and has difficulty writing neatly or consistently, a common side effect of the disease. She said that had she been notified her signatures did not correspond, she would have corrected the ballot immediately.
"The thing that struck me the most about the whole situation was that I was never notified, so I had no idea that my ballot was, in a sense, just thrown away," she said. "I think that's unfortunate in this day and age, with technology making it easy to find people, easy to ask for clarification."
Romo is listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit along with Self Advocacy Solutions ND, a Grand Forks-based nonprofit advocating for the rights of people with disabilities, and the League of Women Voters of North Dakota, a Fargo-based nonpartisan political organization.
The lawsuit was filed Friday, May 1, in federal court by the Campaign Legal Center, which also provided representation in the Spirit Lake Tribe, et al. v. Jaeger voter ID suit earlier this year. Self Advocacy Solutions v. Jaeger targets a North Dakota policy to discard ballots that bear signatures that do not match the voter's ballot application. The lawsuit claims the signature verification process is "error-prone" and the election officials who compare the signatures are not trained in signature verification. Voters whose ballots are discarded are not notified, according to the complaint.
The process disproportionately disenfranchises people with disabilities, non-native speakers, young and elderly voters, and other people who are prone to signature variability. Romo is one such person. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1997, a disease that is frequently accompanied with difficulty to write neatly or consistently, according to the complaint.
Now that North Dakota has moved to a statewide vote-by-mail election in light of the coronavirus pandemic, Romo said she worries many people will unknowingly not have their votes counted in the upcoming June election.
North Dakota Secretary of State Alvin Jaeger and Grand Forks County Auditor Debbie Nelson are listed as defendants. The suit requests the court bar election officials from discarding a ballot on the basis of signature verification without first notifying the voter and requests Jaeger issue that same guidance to county elections. The suit also requests attorney fees for the plaintiffs and any other relief the court sees fit.
"It just raises my awareness that these things aren't as simple as they sound," Romo said. "I'm just hoping that there are some changes, because why does it have to be so backwards and difficult and unforgiving?"