Mrs. Lucking, my fourth-grade teacher, made us practice our handwriting. And practice. And practice.

A blackboard ran along two walls of her classroom, curling around a corner, and she divided it into about 30 sections, one for each student.

Every day we stood at our assigned place, from the best writer standing in the spot on the far right next to the classroom door (“In case the superintendent of schools decides to visit”) ranked in descending order to the worst, hidden in the far left-hand corner of the room.

While we copied our exercises on the board, she would walk behind us, tapping people on the shoulder, telling them to “step out” and be re-ranked. Moving up was exhilarating, and moving down a humiliation. If you’ve seen my handwriting, you would not be surprised to learn that I never made it anywhere the superintendent could get a glimpse.

But now, 44 years later, who cares? We type everything, and as voice recognition software keeps getting better, we may never even have to do that soon. The only time our handwriting really matters any more is when we sign our names.

But when it matters, it really matters.

The Maine Secretary of State’s Office made big news last month when it announced that a citizen initiative to legalize marijuana would not make the ballot because of irregularities with the petitions that resulted in the rejection of thousands of signatures.

OK, I had to laugh. People who want to legalize marijuana have trouble following instructions? No way.

But the real reason was more sinister. Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap rejected the roughly 17,000 names because the signature of a single notary who registered petitions was “so widely variable and unrecognizable” that it was impossible to know if the same person really processed them.

The notary in question, former state Rep. Stavros Mendros, has a history that might draw special attention. In 2007 he pleaded guilty to notarizing signatures that he did not actually witness, so it’s understandable that they gave him a close look.

But the Mrs. Lucking treatment is a little extreme.

“Variable and unrecognizable”? Like the signature you sign with your finger on a touch screen at Rite Aid or the one on your mortgage? How about the signature on your driver’s license, or the one on the birthday card that was going around the office?

Mendros says that’s the kind of variation in play here.

“I signed 15,000 documents over the course of 60 days,” Mendros told the Maine Sunday Telegram’s Gillian Graham. “My signature was not the exact same 15,000 times. I don’t know how you could expect me to do that.”

The secretary of state’s decision is a matter now before the courts, and Dunlap could be overruled. But it raises some questions for the rest of us.

In this age of technology, isn’t there a better way to verify identity than penmanship? You can tap your wallet on a transponder and the store know how much to take out of your checking account. Apple can make a smartphone that recognizes your fingerprint, but we are still relying on the analytical judgment of amateurs to determine whether the loops and points on a pair of scrawls are consistent with each other.

And there is another public policy issue here.

Let’s say that Mendros is right and he signed all that paperwork. What kind of protection would we be getting from a system that has one guy signing his name 15,000 times?

How much attention could he really be paying when, as he said, he’s up until 4 a.m. “signing 1,000 documents at the same time”?

As people get impatient with the pace of government, they are relying more on referendum campaigns every year.

This fall, we can expect to see questions on ranked choice voting, a $12 minimum wage, universal background checks for gun sales and a surcharge on high incomes to support education. Even if the marijuana initiative doesn’t get on the ballot, that’s still a lot of meaty issues that will be decided by up-or-down votes, with no opportunity to compromise.

That puts a lot of power in the hands of the people who write the questions and can afford to pay petition gatherers, and we could use some more protection than a guy who is willing to sign until his hand falls off.

We need more than a modern-day Mrs. Lucking looking over the notary’s shoulder, occasionally telling him to “step out.”

A lot has changed over the years, and we are not in fourth grade anymore.


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