The Trump campaign and high-profile Republicans are demanding that signature-matching be a major part of the recount the president filed for in Georgia, where President-elect Joe Biden beat him by less than one half of a percentage point – but the secretary of state's office is saying that ship has sailed.
Because of rules designed to protect voter privacy, ballots in Georgia are separated from their outer envelopes – where the signature is – after they are initially verified. This makes it impossible to reconnect the ballots to their envelopes, and therefore impossible to re-do signature matching after ballots are counted.
"Today, the Trump campaign filed a petition for recount in Georgia," the president's legal team said in a statement Saturday. "President Trump and his campaign continue to insist on an honest recount in Georgia, which has to include signature-matching and other vital safeguards. Without signature-matching, this recount would be a sham and again allow for illegal votes to be counted."
It continued: "If there is no signature-matching, this would be as phony as the initial vote count and recount. Let’s stop giving the people false results. There must be a time when we stop counting illegal ballots. Hopefully it is coming soon.”
Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, both Georgia Republicans, backed the president's signature-matching demands on Sunday and earlier in the week called for the resignation of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in a joint statement. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., supported more signature-matching on Monday.
But while a second recount of the Georgia results is coming, it will not include signature-matching. Emergency rules that were adopted ahead of the presidential election explicitly require, in order to preserve the secrecy of each individual vote as laid out in Georgia law and the Georgia Constitution, that ballots be separated from their envelopes so that they cannot possibly be joined back together.
Specifically, an emergency rule that was adopted earlier this year, and on Monday extended to apply to the Jan. 5 runoff elections, mandates that every absentee ballot goes through signature verification but that after the signature is verified the ballot itself is separated from the outer envelope with the signature.
"Absentee ballots shall be processed in batches of not more than 100. At least three persons who are registrars, deputy registrars, poll workers or absentee ballot clerks must be present at all times during the processing of a batch of absentee ballots," the rule states. "All outer envelopes in a batch shall be counted and recorded on a reconciliation form prior to opening the outer envelopes of a batch. Upon opening the outer envelopes of a batch, the contents shall be removed in a manner that ensures that the contents of the envelope cannot be matched back to the outer envelope."
The signature verification that happens when ballots are received follows a previous signature verification when voters request an absentee ballot. In both cases, they are verified against signatures on file with the state like those for driver's licenses or previous voter registrations.
Georgia is not a universal mail-in state, meaning that voters must actively request an absentee ballot before getting one sent to them, which is a system Trump himself backed earlier this year.
"Absentee Ballots are fine because you have to go through a precise process to get your voting privilege," the president said in a tweet.
"The reality is Georgia strengthened signature match," a spokesman for Raffensperger's office said in a statement. "Absentee ballots are matched by Georgia Bureau of Investigation trained elections officials twice before a ballot is cast."
The spokesman added: "For the first time in the history of Georgia, we now have a photo ID associated with the bulk of our absentee ballot applications. Our new online portal forced a voter to confirm their driver’s license before they can request a ballot."
Darrell West, the vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, told Fox News on Monday that the Georgia practice of separating ballots from the outer envelopes is standard around the country and important to maintaining secret ballots.
"You have to do signature verification before the secret ballot is opened. Otherwise, it compromises people's right to privacy," West said. "That is the standard procedure across the states... Every state has the same goal, which is maintaining the secrecy of the ballot, so they're always going to separate the signature from the ballot."
West added: "Most places have had a secret ballot for over 100 years. When it was adopted early in the 20th century it was designed to weed out corruption and to make sure people could cast their ballot the way they wanted to, as opposed to how somebody else might want them to."
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment about the fact that signature verification in a recount will be impossible. It is unclear what the Trump campaign's next move would be if a second recount fails to swing the vote count toward the president, especially since it will not include more signature-matching as the president is demanding.
Notably, any challenges almost certainly must be resolved by Dec. 14, the date when the Electoral College is required to meet and cast their ballots. After that, certificates of electoral votes have to be delivered to various officials by Dec. 23 and the votes are counted by Congress on Jan. 6.
Even if the president's campaign manages to disqualify enough votes to close the margin in Georgia and win the state, and there is no indication that's possible at this point, he would also need the same to happen in multiple other states due to the 306-232 Electoral College win by Joe Biden.