A judge has struck down a state election law as unconstitutional after reviewing the case of a Sonoma County man whose mail-in ballot was disqualified because of a signature mismatch.

Peter La Follette sued Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Bill Rousseau, the county’s registrar of voters, after his November 2016 ballot was rejected because the signature on it was different than the one on file.

La Follette, who turned the ballot in at the polls, didn’t discover what happened until eight months later. He was among 361 voters countywide and 45,000 across the state to suffer the same fate.

His lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, argued the lack of due process was a violation of his constitutional rights.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Ulmer Jr. agreed, finding the law contains no provision requiring officials to tell voters before their ballots are thrown out. Ulmer barred future mail-in ballots from being rejected based on a signature mismatch without offering voters a chance to correct the situation before results are certified in 30 days.

“It’s a big deal,” said Michael Risher, lead attorney for the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “It may allow some tens of thousands of Californians to have their ballots counted instead of having those votes secretly rejected.”

A formal order from the judge setting a new standard for resolving vote-by-mail signature disputes is expected in a week.

Rousseau said Wednesday Sonoma County elections officials already do “everything possible” to contact voters if a question arises about the authenticity of a signature.

That becomes more difficult when voters hand over mail-in ballots at the polls. Now, about 80 percent of voters use mail ballots, he said.

“We always encourage people to vote early,” Rousseau said. “It makes elections go smoother.”

La Follette submitted his on Election Day. The signatures were vastly different and officials were unable to contact him.

“His was way off,” Rousseau said. “It wasn’t even close.”

The case prompted state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, to draft legislation requiring elections officials to notify voters whose mail-in ballot signatures don’t match and give them a means to correct the problem in time to have their votes counted.

Padilla and Rousseau have expressed support for the bill.

Meanwhile, Bertrall Ross, a UC Berkeley law school professor, said the ruling could have a major impact on how mail-in ballots are processed.

But he expressed concern that voters who are notified their ballots might be disqualified would not take the time to verify their signatures. Already, many people are skeptical about the benefits of voting, he said.

“I do worry the remedy might place a burden on those with signature mismatches to go to a state office to prove who they are,” said Ross, who has written law review articles on voter participation. “They need to come up with remedies that make it easy. Otherwise, the order will have little effect.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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