When the Legislature was rushing to wrap up its work as the COVID-19 pandemic grew, this year’s elections were at the top of their mind. To that end, legislators approved measures that would allow the state to conduct by-mail elections (something that Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer refused to implement), but they stopped short of adopting measures to waive the requirement for all ballots to have a witness signature.
Democrats warned the requirement was unrealistic amid the pandemic and would infringe on the rights of Alaskans—particularly Alaskans who are at-risk or otherwise isolated—to participate in the election. Any Alaskan can request a by-mail absentee ballot for any reason, but it must be witnessed by an adult 18 or older.
Republicans opposed the measure, resorting to tired claims about voter fraud. Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes opposed the effort, claiming that she didn’t think there was a soul in Alaska that didn’t have someone who could sign the ballot for them.
Turns out there’s more than 1,200 such souls that had their by-mail ballots rejected in the August primary election because they didn’t include the required witness signature, a large enough number that it could have easily swayed several close elections.
Now, several civil rights groups are filing a lawsuit ahead of the November general election to push for the state to waive the requirement. A similar witness requirement was struck down earlier this summer in Rhode Island, an action that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to reverse.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Alaska, the Native American Rights Fund and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law announced on Tuesday that they had filed a lawsuit seeking to block the measure for the general election.
The groups argue that the measure forces Alaskans to choose between potentially contracting COVID-19 and voting, disenfranchising voters. They also argue that it particularly disenfranchises Alaska Native and minority voters, who’ve been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are elders and Alaska Natives across the state who live alone and are protecting their health and community by staying home,” said Wesley Furlong, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, in a prepared statement. “How are they supposed to get a witness signature? The state of Alaska should be helping people vote during a pandemic, not making them choose between their health and their right to vote.”
The group reached out to the Division of Elections and Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer last week about potentially waiving the requirement. According to the group’s announcement, Meyer and the Division of Elections refused to consider the change.
Meyer and the Division of Elections have been accused several times this year of unfairly biasing this year’s elections. Their decision to refuse to conduct a by-mail election has led to a lack of poll workers, leading to closing of polling stations in rural Alaska with essentially no notice. They’ve also only sent absentee applications to voters over 65—a traditionally more conservative voting population.
Outside of the pandemic-related voting, the Alaska Supreme Court agreed that Meyer also unfairly biased the summary for a voter initiative that seeks to increase oil taxes on certain fields. Meyer is a former oil industry employee.
The lawsuit has been filed on behalf of Arctic Village Council and League of Women Voters of Alaska, as well as individuals 71-year-old Elizabeth L. Jones and 72-year-old Barbara Clark, who according to the complaint are at high-risk of contracting COVID-19 and have no easy option to obtain a witness signature.
Jones lives alone in a log cabin in Fairbanks and has been self-isolating at her home since February to avoid contact with others. According to the legal complaint, she asked a USPS employee to witness her ballot but thanks to a federal mandate, that employee will be barred from witnessing the signature for the November election.
“If the witness requirement remains in place for the upcoming general election, Ms. Jones will be forced to choose between her right to vote and an unacceptable risk to her health,” the complaint argues.
The lawsuit was filed in Anchorage Superior Court.