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Judge hears lawsuit that could eliminate witness signature requirement for Alaska’s absentee voters

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: October 1, 2020
  • Published October 1, 2020

A state judge will rule Monday on a request by several organizations to pause a state law that requires absentee voters to have a second person sign their ballot.

Without both a “witness” signature and the voter’s own signature, the Alaska Division of Elections will not count an absentee ballot. Plaintiffs say that rule is unfair during the COVID-19 pandemic because it forces voters to choose between voting and possibly exposing themselves to a disease spread through close contact.

Attorneys representing the Arctic Village Council, Alaska’s chapter of the League of Women Voters and two older women sued in early September. They’re asking the state to stop enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic and to tell voters about the decision. The state is asking for the suit to be dismissed.

Verbal arguments took place Thursday by telephone.

“We don’t want to take the risk of being in the same room and possibly infecting each other,” said Native American Rights Fund attorney Natalie Landreth, who represented the plaintiffs and pointed out that the Alaska Court System is taking steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Lael Harrison, representing the state, said the suit was simply filed too late.

The state has already sent absentee ballots to members of the military and Alaskans overseas. It’s scheduled to begin sending absentee ballots to other registered Alaskans on Friday.

That means instructions printed on the ballots will tell voters to get a second signature, even if the rule is paused.

Harrison said that could confuse voters and create credibility issues.

“There is a national climate of suspicion” about absentee voting, she said, and any confusion “could seed those doubts.”

Alaska is one of 11 states that require a witness signature, but some of the others have waived those requirements this year. Virginia and Minnesota, for example, have declared following court rulings that they will not reject ballots for missing witness signatures.

During this year’s primary election, 62,455 Alaskans requested absentee ballots, and 1,240 were rejected. Of those, 456 were rejected for “improper or insufficient witnessing." That was enough to make it the No. 1 reason for disqualification.

At least 95,000 Alaskans have requested absentee ballots for November’s general election.

Any registered voter can request to vote absentee for any reason, but request forms must be received by Oct. 24.