Signature certification

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Election workers checking signatures.
Photo credit: Washington Secretary of State's office
Signature certification is the process whereby a county clerk, a Secretary of State, or other elections official determines whether the petitions filed by the supporters of a ballot measure or candidate has sufficient valid signatures to meet the minimum threshold needed to qualify for the ballot.

In states that require tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of valid signatures in order to place a measure on the ballot, the official in charge of the certification process typically has to hire and train many dozens of workers, which may include temporary workers, in order to complete the signature certification process in the time allotted for scrutiny of the signatures.

For ballot measures, the signature certification procedure can vary considerably from state-to-state. These are some of the elements that come into play:

Where are the signatures turned in?

County clerks

  • In California, signatures are submitted by initiative sponsors directly to each of the 58 county clerks/election offices.
  • In Idaho, signatures are submitted to county clerks.
  • In Massachusetts, signatures are submitted to city and town clerks in the state. Once local election officials have processed the signatures, initiative sponsors must pick up the processed signatures from each separate office and submit them to the Office of the Massachusetts Secretary of State.
  • In Montana, signatures are submitted to county election officials.
  • In Utah, the supporters of a statewide ballot measure must turn the signatures in to the county clerk of the county where the signers are registered to vote.

State election office

Random sampling

Main article: Random sampling

Some states require that each signature be individually inspected and a determination made as to whether it is a valid signature. Other states utilize a "random sampling" process to determine a validity rate. Typically, the formula used is based on the idea that if some small percentage of the signatures are inspected and found to have a validity rate of, hypothetically, 75%, then it is safe to assume that the overall validity rate for all the signatures turned in is 75%. The election official would then make a determination such as:

400,000 signatures were turned in. We checked 5% of the signatures--or 20,000 altogether--and of that 20,000 signatures, we found that 15,000 of them (or 75%) are valid. 75% of 400,000 is 300,000, so we stipulate that the supporters of the petition have turned in at least 300,000 valid signatures. Since 282,000 valid signatures were required to place the measure on the ballot, and we believe based on our random sample that at least 300,000 valid signatures were presented, we therefore certify the measure for the ballot.