How do officials verify signatures on recall petitions?

Recall supporters sign the petition at during a petition signing event at SaveMart in Sacramento on Jan. 5, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Recall supporters sign the petition at during a petition signing event at SaveMart in Sacramento on Jan. 5, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

California has a long-established procedure for making sure that the people who sign petitions are who they say they are. Signature verification takes place at the registrar of voters for each of California’s 58 counties.

First, county election officials manually count the number of signatures that have been turned in. Then, they look at each signature and match it against the signature on a voter’s registration card. Finally, they check their work, said Neal Kelley, Orange County’s registrar of voters. 

“It’s a pretty labor-intensive process,” he said. “People don’t realize the amount of time that goes into ensuring that it’s right.”

Kelley’s office has 15 people who do this job, each one assigned a batch of petitions. When they examine signatures, they’re supposed to look at the slant of the handwriting, the spacing between letters, and other factors — including how t’s are crossed and the shape of the loop on a g or a j. If a voter’s signature on the petition is significantly different from what’s on their registration card, it doesn’t count. 

Elections officials also make sure each voter is only counted once. As they go through the petitions, they make notes in their computer system to keep track of voters that signed a petition and strike any duplicates.

Then counties report to the Secretary of State how many signatures they received and how many were invalid. After they finish this step (by April 29 for the Newsom recall), voters have 30 days to remove their signatures from the petitions if they want. 

The Newsom recall campaign has been doing its own verification process before submitting signatures to the counties, said campaign consultant Dave Gilliard. That’s likely helped it achieve a high rate of valid signatures — about 84%

That hasn’t stopped some conservatives from sowing doubts about California’s signature verification process as they tried to gin up support for the recall. GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista told Politico he believes Democrats will “lie, cheat and steal” to manipulate the signature count, though he had no evidence of it. Numerous Republican politicians shared a false statement actor Kevin Sorbo posted on Twitter, claiming that California election officials checked signatures on the recall petitions, but not on mail-in ballots.

The signature verification process for mail-in ballots is the same as it is for petitions, Kelley said. And Gilliard, the veteran GOP consultant working on the recall, said he has confidence in elections officials.  

“The system in California has always been very straight forward,” he said. “I don’t think the registrars will play games.”