We are a society reliant on convenience, and judging by the increasing number of mail-in ballots being processed by election offices across the nation, voting is no exception.

In the last Arizona election, which was the special election to replace former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, there were more than 147,000 ballots at election headquarters before election day on June 12.

In the special Primary Election, there were more than 95,654 early ballots.

With the increased rate of voting early, Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez said her office has started fielding more questions about security and how those ballots are being verified.

That process to verify an early ballot falls on the shoulders of election workers who recently took a class hosted by Kathleen Annunziate Nicolaides, an expert from the Affiliated Forensic Laboratory in Phoenix.

Pima County Deputy Recorder Chris Roads said all election staff go through the mandatory training.

A skeptic might think there’s no way an employee of the Recorder’s Office could identify questionable and fraudulent signatures after only three hours of training. However, that is not the case given how quickly those in training were able to identify false signatures and shady election petitions by the end of the class.

Nicolaides said election fraud centers around clean election forms, voter registration forms, proposition petitions and signatures on early ballots.

Since the ballots are being mailed in, there is no way of verifying a photo ID, there is no way of watching the voter physically sign the ballot. So, that makes it up to election workers to go through every ballot sent by mail.

Rhodes said a computer file is kept of all registered voters and when a ballot comes through the mail, an election worker will hold the new ballot up to a computer screen to compare it with an older valid signature on file.

It is at this point that Nicolaides’ training becomes important.

A curve in how a person signs the letter g, a separation between the first letter of a name and the second, whether or not the questionable ballot has darker ink, which would indicate a lot of pausing to practice signing someone else’s name are all factors to be considered when holding that ballot up to a verified signature.

Step one of the three-hour session centered around training the eye.

“Can you be trained to be able to see slight differences in shapes?” Nicolaides said.

After some tips, the answer for all those in attendance quickly became yes.

The second step involves the principles of handwriting identification, where Nicolaides explained that no two writers share the same combination of handwriting characteristics.

“Each writer has a range of variation centered within his or her basic writing habits,” she said. “The challenge for election officials is that they are working with a smaller body of knowns.”

The traditional handwriting system was published by Zaner Bloser in 1904. However, a person will naturally deviate from the set style, which is where they put in their own characteristics into the basic writing style they are taught.

“If everyone was perfect at writing these, there would be no separation to analyze,” Nicolaides said. “But, even a master penmen deviates from set handwriting forms.”

There are four stages in a writer’s life. The first stage is the formulative stage where the writer is just learning. The second state is the impressionable, or adolescent stage, where the writer is starting to put more character into their writing.

A person enters the third stage of writing in their 20s, which is when they reach graphic maturity.

The final stage is what makes it tough to sometimes verify signatures, said Nicolaides. The fourth stage is when a person has reached the senility or degeneration phase of life.

It is the fourth stage that a person loses more control of the pen and a signature, while valid, may appear fake.

Roads said any time there is even a question that a signature might be fake on a ballot, they are set aside for more staff members to get involved. There are some cases where the voter is called and asked if they indeed sent in the early ballot.

In the end, Nicolaides stressed that election crews are trained to really look at consistency. If the letters are slanted the same, if the general flow of the signature matches the one on file. In all there are 21 elements of writing an examiner must consider, she added.

With a busy election season right around the corner, Roads said the early training is extremely important for the Pima County Recorder’s office.

Early ballots for the Aug. 28 Primary Election begin going out on Aug. 2.

The last day to request an early ballot is Aug. 17.


Important dates

Primary Election: May 29 - First day to request an early ballot, the last day is Aug. 17.

July 30 - Voter registration cut-off

Aug. 2 - Early voting begins

Aug. 28 - Primary Election Day

General Election: Aug. 6 - First day to request an early ballot, the last day is Oct. 26.

Oct. 9 - Voter registration cut-off

Oct. 11 - Early voting begins

Nov. 6 - Primary Election Day



Candidates for Pima County board of supervisors:

District 1 -

Mike Hellon, Republican

Stuart McDaniel, Republican

Ally Miller, Republican

Vic Williams, Republican

Nancy Young Wright, Democrat

District 2 -

Ramon Valadez, Democrat

James Kelley, Republican

District 3 -

Sharon Bronson, Democrat

Tanner Bell, Republican

District 4 -

Ray Carroll, Republican

Sean Collins, Republican

District 5 -

Richard Elías, Democrat

Fernando Gonzales, Republican



Pima County races:

Pima County Sheriff:

Clarence Dupnik, Democrat

Dave Croteau, Green

Terry Frederick, Republican

Vinson Holck, Republican

Chester Manning, Republican

Mark Napier, Republican

Pima County Attorney:

Barbara LaWall, Democrat

Claudia Elquist, Green

Pima County Assessor:

Bill Staples, Democrat

Pima County Recorder:

F. Ann Rodriguez, Democrat

Bill Beard, Republican

Pima County School Superintendent:

Linda Arzoumanian, Republican

Mace Bravin, Republican

Pima County Treasurer:

Elaine Richardson, Democrat

Beth Ford, Republican

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