Ronald DeSantis had just turned 30 when the up-and-coming prosecutor sent a Mayport Navy sailor to prison for six years on child pornography charges. DeSantis’ signature on the 2008 plea agreement was crisp and elegant: A sharp “R” to start; a stately “D” for Dion, his middle name; and “DeSantis” written with an artistic flourish.
Gov. DeSantis' signature as special assistant U.S. attorney in a plea agreement for a court case in 2008.
Gov. DeSantis' signature as special assistant U.S. attorney in a plea agreement for a court case in 2008. [ U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida ]
Over the next 13 years, DeSantis’ signature would evolve from the neat cursive of his youth to the hurried one he uses frequently today as Florida’s governor. Along the way, he dropped the middle initial. He altered the look of the “R,” and then switched it back. A quick squiggle and a big swoop replaced most of the letters in his last name.
Handwriting experts say no two signatures from one person are the same. It’s why Florida election officials for years have used all the signatures at their disposal — sometimes more than a dozen — when they authenticate a voter’s signature on a mail-in ballot.
DeSantis wants to rein-in that long-standing practice. Vote-by-mail signatures “must match the most recent signature on file” with the state Department of Elections, DeSantis declared in February. A bill moving through the Florida Senate would make that the law.
Some election officials say limiting signature samples could make it harder to authenticate the identities of voters who choose to cast their ballot by mail. Signatures change over time, they say, and are often affected by the choice of pen, the writing surface, fatigue or a person’s health. A new requirement for a one-to-one match could lead to more rejected ballots.
DeSantis’ own John Hancock has undergone a transformation during his time in government, as demonstrated by 16 of his signatures compiled by the Tampa Bay Times from publicly available sources between 2008 and now.
Experts and election officials who reviewed DeSantis’ signature history for the Times said some of the modifications in his penmanship could have posed trouble for election workers, especially if constrained to one point of comparison. In a handful of instances, it’s possible the ballot could have been rejected, they said.
“It shows why it is better to have multiple signatures for review than to have one,” said Tom Vastrick, a forensic document examiner based in Apopka.
The Times presented DeSantis’ office with his signatures and with a summary of the opinion of the experts interviewed for this story. His spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment on the analysis nor did they say why this change in law is needed.
The new limitations on signature matching are included in a larger bill, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican, that would overhaul mail-in voting. He said comparing the signature on the ballot to the most recent one on file with the state will simplify the verification process.
“It’s the most current and more likely to be how they’re signing things now,” Baxley said. “That is the key.”
The proposal is part of a package of voting legislation that Florida Republicans are pushing this session to the state’s election system, even though DeSantis praised Florida for how it conducted its 2020 election. “The way Florida did it, I think inspires confidence, I think that’s how elections should be run,” DeSantis said at the time.
Yet five months later, Florida has joined other GOP-controlled states in proposing new restrictions on voting, especially mail-in ballots, which former President Donald Trump has ridiculed in his failed bid to overturn the election.
The bill is scheduled for a committee vote Wednesday. Baxley said changes could be forthcoming.
The past and the present
The signature on the state paperwork for DeSantis’ first congressional campaign in 2012 bears only a passing resemblance to the one he often scribbles these days on executive actions.
Richard Orsini, a forensic document examiner from Jacksonville Beach, teaches election officials how to spot the similarities.
The initial downstroke of the “R” in “Ron” is consistent in the two signatures, he said. And the finishing stroke in both samples is a cursive “s” that crosses back over the last name in a clockwise curl. Despite other differences, Orsini said it would be reasonable to conclude these signatures belong to the same person.
Orsini and other handwriting experts cram a lifetime of knowledge into their hours-long training sessions with election workers and canvassing boards — the volunteers who make quick decisions on whether to reject or accept a mail-in ballot based on the signature. One of the pieces of wisdom they impart is the importance of having multiple specimens to make a fair determination.
“If I get a call from an attorney for a contested will, here’s my standard ask of them: I need the best copy of the questioned document signature, and then I need 10 to 20 uncontested, known general signatures that you can find written as close to the date of the contested signature,” Orsini said. “That’s my first request.”
Those additional examples could help election workers if they encounter a signature like the one DeSantis adopted as a U.S. Representative.
Then-U.S. Rep. DeSantis' signature on a letter to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017 dated Aug. 3, 2017.
Then-U.S. Rep. DeSantis' signature on a letter to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017 dated Aug. 3, 2017. [ U.S. House of Representatives ]
This signature appeared on a 2017 letter DeSantis penned to former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Unlike previous signatures or his current one, the finishing stroke is counter-clockwise, noted Vastrick.
“That really sticks out to me,” he said.
Herb Polson, a former St. Petersburg Council member, had to make determinations on mail ballot signatures when he sat on the Pinellas County canvassing board in 2018 and 2020. He said it would be difficult to match that 2017 signature with the one DeSantis has used more recently.
“If those were the only two I had to choose from, I’d have trouble with those two,” Polson said. “It’s a completely different style of start. That in itself could lead me to say, ‘Huh, that doesn’t look like the one from a year earlier.’ "
LX.com, a NBC news website, reported on Tuesday that DeSantis’ ballot in 2016 was rejected because Flagler County officials deemed his signature did not match the one on file with the state.
Under Florida law, if a mail-in ballot is rejected, the voter has an opportunity to fix it at their local elections office, a process called a ballot “cure.” DeSantis was able to cure his 2016 ballot in time for the vote to count.
The most recent signature for many voters may be the one they used when they signed their driver’s license at a Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles office. That signature is often recorded on an older digital pad with a stylus — not with a pen, like how a ballot is signed.
Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida, studies the application of voter signature matching laws. His research has shown counties often apply signature matching rules unevenly, and students and minorities are more likely to have their ballot rejected because of a mismatch.
“It’s really silly you would want to limit the signature to compare,” Smith said. DeSantis’ “own signatures show the reason for that.”
Instead of limiting signatures or relying on a digital facsimile, it would be more helpful to have people sign their name 10 times in ink when they register to vote, Vastrick said.
In response to these concerns, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia last week tweaked his voting bill to allow election officials to use a signature on file from the past four years. Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, said the limitation is needed “to make sure there wasn’t signature shopping where you would have 20 different signature iterations going back 20 years.”
State Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat, said the amended bill is “better than what we had before” but she added: “It’s trying to fix something that wasn’t broken.”
“Our poll workers have been trained to use multiple signatures,” she said, “and it seems wholly ineffficient to be changing the procedures for them.”
Lawmakers, students and teachers surrounded DeSantis in May 2019 when he ceremoniously signed the top policy priority of his first year in office: a massive expansion of the state’s school voucher program. After capping a blue Sharpie, DeSantis flashed the signed bills for the cameras.
If that signature appeared on a mail-in ballot, an election worker would have a hard time matching it to a single sample, said Ion Sancho, the former supervisor of elections in Leon County.
“I’ve witnessed them having problems and this probably would be rejected,” Sancho said. “It’s one of the reasons you need multiple pieces of evidence.”
“That is more than a reach for me,” he said. “I would have a tough time giving an affirmative to that.”
DeSantis has often voted by mail in Florida, including as recently as the 2020 August Republican primary. After Trump’s months-long crusade against mail-in voting in 2020, DeSantis has made it his priority to put new restrictions on the popular voting method. Most of the attention has centered on DeSantis’ proposals to eliminate ballot drop boxes and a new requirement that people re-register to vote by mail every year.
DeSantis has said these measures are needed for election security. He has said less about why he wants to change the signature matching rules.
“If there needs to be ways to bolster the signature verification, then we need to do that as well,” he said in February in West Palm Beach.
Smith said limiting signatures could have the opposite effect on election security. Fewer signatures means less evidence to verify a positive match.
“If you’re interested in election integrity, wouldn’t you want more signatures to validate the one that is coming in?” Smith said. “Unless that is really not your intention.”