Alaska’s witness signature requirement hasn’t helped catch fraud, but it has stopped thousands of votes from being counted

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With the latest release of ballot statistics on Wednesday, the state is now reporting that 6,205 ballots have been rejected of the roughly 155,000 ballots returned. That brings the rejection rate across the state to 4%, up from 3.5% on Monday. We saw a significant uptick in rejections for ballots in the Fairbanks area where all six of the region’s legislative districts now sit above a 4% rejection rate with the city of Fairbanks district currently sitting at 6.51%. The rejections for the Fairbanks region total 1,188 ballots.

Ballot rejection statistics as of June 15, 2022. (Data from the Division of Elections)

Pressure on the state for answers is also growing.

Alaska Public Media reporter Wesley Early, who originally flagged the high rejection rates in rural Alaska, published a story today on the issue and the corresponding pushback from the Senate Democrats. Neither Early nor the legislators have been able to get anything back from the Division of Elections, which is telling folks to wait until after the election is certified to get a better look at the rejections. On that front, it also appears that the state’s ballot tracking system won’t tell you whether your ballot has been rejected and you’ll be waiting until 10 days after the certification of the election for the state to mail you a notification your vote wasn’t counted.

After the Senate Democrats sent their letter Tuesday, Native Peoples Action has joined the conversation with a four-page letter sent to Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and legislators seeking answers on the rejections, what the state did to reach out to districts with high proportions of non-English speaking voters and what it’ll be doing in the future.

“By rejecting an astounding number of special election primary ballots, the State of Alaska is silencing the voices of our people who turn out to vote, many who are already facing increased barriers to voting access,” said NPA executive director Kendra Kloster in a prepared statement accompanying the letter. “We call on Alaska’s leadership to heed the call from Alaskans: take action to ensure that when our people turn out to vote that all our voices are heard, and our votes are counted. Without a voting system that will ensure all Alaskan voices are counted and heard, the State of Alaska is failing our people.”

Native Peoples Action is also calling on legislators to consider changes that would address this problem in the future, including a special session. Legislation that would’ve introduced a process to fix any problems with your ballot—known as curing—got attention this session but ultimately failed to pass. Even if it had, though, it would not have been in place in time for this special election.

At this point, the most likely remedy to the rejected ballots in time for it to make a difference in this election is a lawsuit.

Also, while curing is an important tool in elections, it won’t solve the issues created by an unequal distribution of resources or break through language barriers. It’s easier for the ballots to be accepted on the first go around rather than a hope that the notification and curing process breaks through whatever barriers created the problems in the first place.

And, hey, if we’re looking for an effective way to reduce the number of rejections, then we don’t have to look very far back in our own state’s history.

The witness signature is a burden without justification

Yesterday’s stroll through the world of charts and graphs showed that the high rejection rates have always been a part of Alaska’s election system but that it ultimately didn’t amount to much because most people were voting in other methods, such as in-person voting or early voting. Sure, there were some years where districts produced eye-popping rejection rates, but they often amounted to less than a fraction of a fraction of all the votes cast in those elections.

If we’re looking for solutions, let’s look at when the state’s rejection rate was its lowest on record for every legislative district:

Yep. That’d be the 2020 general election when the courts put the state’s witness signature requirement on hold due to the pandemic, with the courts finding that it served as an unconstitutional limitation on voting during a pandemic (which is definitely not still going on) and had no legitimate purpose that overrode the constitutional concerns about access to voting.

The rejection rates in the four rural Alaska districts that we’ve been focusing on all sat below 2%. It was also the lowest rejection rate on record for every single other legislative district over the elections covered by the state’s published statistics. The statewide rejection rate was at 0.58% in the 2020 general election with just 569 rejections out of 98,816 returned ballots, far more ballots than had been cast in the previous elections.

In the story with Alaska Public Media, Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski called the signature requirement for this election a “bureaucratic roadblock.”

“You have a signature requirement, but the Division of Elections has no way to verify the signatures,” he said. “Then you have a witness requirement, but the Division of Elections doesn’t verify the signature of the witness and doesn’t even verify that the witness lives in Alaska or is even a real person.”

The state defended the witness signature requirement as a tool to fight fraud and instill confidence in the results of the elections, which both sound like noble goals on paper. The problem, though, is that the state was unable to cite any cases where the witness signature had played a role in detecting fraud. Zero. That failure to show that the witness signature served any useful purpose didn’t sit well with the Alaska Supreme Court. From its decision:

[I]s the witness requirement effective enough at deterring fraud and boosting voter confidence in Alaska’s election process that its use is justified despite the substantial burden it places on the right to vote during the pandemic? In support of its fraud deterrence rationale, the State cites the recent indictment of a former state legislator and two associates “on multiple counts of voter fraud after the Division detected irregularities in absentee ballot applications” in the 2018 general election. A witness requirement, however, had no apparent part in the detection of that alleged fraud, as ballot applications, which may be completed online, are not required to be witnessed. Nor has the State identified any more relevant examples. As described in the superior court’s preliminary injunction order, it asked the State’s counsel at oral argument “whether the Witness Requirement had ever played a role in detecting fraud,” but the attorney “could not identify any such instance in recent memory and was not sure whether it had played a role in detection in the more distant past.” The superior court concluded that, “[b]ased on the record before it,” it could not find that the witness requirement was “an effective tool for detecting voter fraud,” and we must agree.

As for the ever-present “concern” about fraud, it should also be noted that the 2020 general election saw scrutiny unlike any election in the past but still no major evidence of fraud was uncovered. An audit of the Ballot Measure 2 returns also turned up no evidence of fraud or faulty results.

In a November 2020 editorial, Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer boasted about how “this year’s general election was conducted fairly and without any trace of fraud.”

It’s also important to note that the state’s signature system doesn’t even have the kind of teeth you would need to catch fraud (which, for the record, is incredibly rare in the first place). The state has no ability to verify signatures against the one on your ID card and has no way of even verifying whether your witness is a real person. As shown in the court case from the 2020 election, the state couldn’t even point to a case where it has proven useful in uncovering anything.

All it has been proved to do is prevent people—particularly people from rural Alaska—from voting.

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