BENTON, FRANKLIN, AND CHELAN COUNTIES, WA - A lawsuit (Reyes at al v Chilton) filed by plaintiffs Marissa Reyes, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)  and the Latino Community Fund of Washington against Benton, Chelan, and Yakima counties cites violation of the 14th and 15th Amendment stating their ballot system “discriminates against Latino voters and other racial minorities.”

In fact, in Benton County, ballots by Latino voters and those with Spanish surnames were 3.2 times more likely to have their ballots rejected compared to White voters, because their signatures didn’t match. In Yakima county, Latino voters were 4.3 times more likely to have their ballots rejected because of this too. And in Chelan, Latino voters were 6.2 times more likely to have their ballots rejected. 

In 2019, 24% of rejected ballots were due to mismatched signatures. Now that statistics has more than doubled. 74% of rejected ballots in 2020 were due to mismatched signatures. 

Among these voters whose ballots have been rejected is the judge assigned to hearing this case Reyes at al v Chilton, Judge Salvador Mendoza.

"This just goes to show you that it doesn't matter you class, socioeconomic status or education. Judge Mendoza is an educated federal judge, and even his ballot was flagged due to what the auditor claims as a mismatched signature of his Spanish last name." said Molly Matter, co-counselor on the case.

Amongst several voter disenfranchisement that voting and human rights attorney Molly Matter and LULAC President Domingo Garcia cited, they said mail-in-ballots are usually rejected for three reasons. Late ballots, ballots without any signature, or ballots with mismatched signatures. In 2020, mismatched signatures was the most common reason in Washington state why a ballot was discounted. Latinos made up most of that demographic.

“It seems that if you have a Spanish surname, you are more likely to be scrutinized for your signature. A lot of the time ballot auditors (who have the authority and discretion when looking at signatures) don’t realize that Latinos might have one or two last names due to their culture or their mom’s maiden name,” says co-counselor on the case, Molly Matter.

“If you’re a Garcia, a Sanchez, a Hernandez, or any Latino last name, you’re more likely to have your ballot thrown out than someone with a name of Jones or Smith,” said LULAC’s national President Domingo Garcia.

“This is definitely a tool of voter suppression,” says Matter, whose investigation on this particular voting issue spans a few years since 2017, “It seems the more politically engaged and civically engaged Latino voters are, the more discriminatory measures are being used.”

In 2020, about 99 percent of voters voted by mail in WA. In order for ballots to be counted, a voter must sign the outside of the return envelope. The signature on the envelope must match the signature in the county’s voter registration record. 

The defendants include those involved in handling the mail-in ballots which are Benton County Auditor Brenda Chilton, Prosecutor Andy Miller and Commission Chairman Jerome Delvin - all who make up the Benton County Canvassing Review Board. The defendants also include Yakima County’s Auditor Charles Ross, Prosecutor Joe Brusic and Commissioner Ron Anderson; as well as Chelan County, Auditor Skip Moore and Commissioner Bob Bugert.

The lawsuit states that the county auditors, prosecutors, and commissioners have not communicate clear standards to voters on how their handwriting must match in addition to the fact that Latinos in Eastern Washington and nationwide have much higher rates of having their ballot rejected because of handwriting compared to non-Latino voters stating it is racially biased discrimination. The lawsuit goes on to write it is a “flawed system,” saying no two signatures by the same person are the same. Their claim is that giving the county board of canvassers, who have authority over counting ballot signatures, violates due process because it denies Latino voters ballots based on the board’s own discretion and doesn’t give Latino voters due process to explain themselves. 

In the lawsuit, the plaintiff’s ask that the defendants declare that their system violates the Constitutional Amendments and Federal Voting Rights Act and adopt a better standard of determining matching signatures amongst other “prayers for relief” which include, declaring that the defendants have violated the United States Constitution, as well as section 2 of the Federal Voting Rights Act, design a process that does not discriminate/allows a person to cure their ballot (fix their signature) upon issue, and publish the number of rejected ballots for the general public. The lawsuit was filed May 7th and defendants have until the 28th to respond. 

Judge Salvador Mendoza has since recused himself from the case. On September 7th, 2021, all counsel received this pleading:

TEXT ORDER: During the course of the previous election cycle, the undersigned Judge's ballot was initially rejected due to a perceived signature mismatch. The ballot was eventually accepted after the undersigned Judge followed the prescribed steps to cure the ballot. The undersigned Judge does not believe this experience presents either a risk of bias or appearance of impropriety, and therefore does not believe recusal is necessary. If any party believes recusal is necessary, they shall be prepared to address the issue at the telephonic scheduling conference on September 9, 2021. TEXT-ONLY ENTRY; NO PDF DOCUMENT WILL ISSUE. THIS TEXT-ONLY ENTRY CONSTITUTES THE COURT'S ORDER OR NOTICE ON THE MATTER. Signed by Judge Salvador Mendoza, Jr. (MRJ, Case Administrator)
 
This later changed.

On September 9th, 2021, all counsel received a pleading that Judge Salvador Mendoza recused himself and the case was assigned to another judge.

After the recusal, Molly Matter said the following:

"All Latino voters are at risk for having their ballots rejected because of discrimination. The fact that Judge Mendoza's ballot was challenged for a signature mismatch clearly shows that education or socio-economic status is not the reason Latino voters are getting their ballots challenged. On the flip side, it also tells us that socio-economic status may be the reason whether a person's ballot is ultimately rejected. I am sure that Judge Mendoza had the means to drive to the Elections Office or correspondence with the Elections Office to fix his signature. I encourage all voters to reach out to UCLA Voting Rights Project or to me @ Amend Law LLC molly@amendlawmatter if they have had their ballots challenged or rejected."

The statistics cited in the lawsuit were taken from investigations and the Washington State Secretary. 

The defendants in this lawsuit have not commented at this time. They were contacted and some have still not yet returned the message for a statement.

If you have an issue with a mail-in-ballot you can contact LULAC at their website and Molly Matter at molly@amendlawmatter.com