Why Do Some States Require Notarized Mail-In Ballots?

The Brookings Institution expects more than 145 million people to vote in the 2020 presidential election, with as many as 60 million ballots being cast by mail due to COVID-19.

The process of requesting a mail-in or absentee ballot varies by state. Colorado automatically sent its ballot request application to all registered voters; Kansas asked its voters to initiate the request. Massachusetts requires a reason for why you can’t visit your polling place in person; Florida needs no excuse.

In most cases, the application process is enough to receive and submit your ballot. But there’s one final step in Mississippi, Missouri, and Oklahoma: the ballots require a notarized signature. This can be the difference between whether your vote is counted or tossed aside.

Here’s why some states require mail-in ballots to be notarized.

Notaries are impartial, third-party witnesses

Notaries are agents of trust. They are public servants commissioned by their state to certify the signing of contracts, deeds, and other important documents – as many as 1.25 billion documents annually.

The notary’s seal is the original “Seal of Approval,” and is often the last hurdle in buying a home, establishing a power of attorney, finalizing a Will – or in some cases, submitting a ballot. These are transactions that require clarity and certainty up-front; they’re not things you can figure out later.

Institutions rely upon notaries so they may have full faith in important documents. After witnessing a signing, a notary public applies their signature, seal, and notary commission details.

When you see a notary's seal on a document, it means an impartial witness verified that the transaction is authentic and properly executed.

Notaries verify signer identity

The basic elements of a valid notarization have been the same for centuries, and begins with the notary confirming signer identity.

Until the mid-20th century, there were only two ways for a notary to identify a signer: either the notary personally knew the signer, or the notary and signer knew a mutual party who could serve as a “credible witness” and identify the signer.

With the widespread adoption of government-issued IDs in the 1940s, access to notarization vastly expanded as notaries could identify a signer without a credible witness or personal knowledge of the signer.

The state and federal government effectively became the credible witness by validating signer identity and giving the individual proof of their identity. From then on, if the face on the ID matched the signer’s face, the notary could safely assume that the person was who they claimed to be.

Notaries validate signer intent

Once a notary confirms signer identity, they must then confirm signer intent.

To cement trust in every transaction, a notary must be confident that the signer understands the document they are signing, and that they are signing that document under their own free will. This applies to any transaction – from agreements between friends to home mortgages.

Any sign of uncertainty or uneasiness could be a symptom of a larger problem. In many states, notaries are barred from completing a notarization if the signer appears disoriented, confused, or uncertain about their document in any way. States that require notarized ballots rely on notaries to confirm voter competency and willingness. Notaries may not judge or reject an individual based on who they vote for.

Technology is strengthening the role of the notary

Despite their importance, getting documents notarized is incredibly frustrating. For over 100 years, everyday Americans needed to find, schedule, and visit a notary public in-person so that their signature could be verified. That search is all the more difficult in the midst of a global pandemic.

But today, the nearest notary is in your pocket – or perhaps right now in your hand.

Remote online notarization (RON) brings some much-needed technology into the notarial act and ensures that a notary can properly authenticate a transaction for Americans across the globe. This technology has been around for years, and has already modernized some of our most important industries like banking and the judicial system.

We as a society have access to tools that better validate identity – such as credential analysis and knowledge-based authentication – and can produce secure eSignatures with thorough audit trails for stronger record-keeping practices.

So why wouldn’t we use them?

At a time when technology so often comes at the expense of interpersonal, human interactions, RON makes it easier for every American to access a notary when and where it’s needed.

When we think about the future of our elections, it’s important to consider solutions and best practices that support the sacred act of voting.

Remote notarizations empower everyone – voters and non-voters alike – with access to on-demand trust that’s built for our digital age.

New call-to-action