The Alaska State Commission for Human Rights is suing the lieutenant governor and the Division of Elections over what it says is a lack of sufficient accommodations for visually impaired voters in the U.S. House primary race — the state’s first all-mail election.
In a complaint filed Wednesday in state Superior Court in Anchorage, plaintiff Robert Corbisier, executive director of the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, alleges that the ballots that were mailed to every registered voter in the state for the special primary election “do not provide an opportunity to visually impaired voters to vote privately, secretly and independently.”
The lawsuit names Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer — who oversees elections in Alaska — and Division of Elections director Gail Fenumiai as defendants. Meyer’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit. The Division of Elections deferred comment to the Department of Law.
With only three days to go until the Saturday voting deadline, the commission is asking for the certification of election results to be delayed until “visually impaired Alaska voters are given full and fair opportunity” to vote.
On Wednesday, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Una Gandbhir granted a motion for expedited consideration of the request. A hearing was scheduled to take place remotely on Friday at 11:30 a.m.
The complaint also asks for “remedial measures” to facilitate the participation of visually impaired voters in the election. According to the complaint, accommodations for visually impaired voters are only available in five of the 170 in-person polling places open across the state.
According to the lawsuit, a visually impaired Anchorage voter filed a complaint to the human rights commission on May 15, triggering an investigation more than three weeks before the lawsuit was filed.
In a statement from the Alaska Department of Law, spokesperson Patty Sullivan said the department is still reviewing the complaint, but noted the timing of the lawsuit has raised “serious concerns” in the Division of Elections.
The division “will ask that the court not upset the constitutionally and statutorily required special election, for which ballots were sent out over a month ago,” Sullivan said in an emailed statement.
“These issues could have been raised much earlier, and the Division has not done anything differently than what it has done in the past for absentee voting,” Sullivan said.
Voters have until Saturday to mail their ballots or vote in person. They can also drop off their mail-in ballots at state elections offices. The certification of election results is scheduled two weeks later on June 25, according to officials at the Division of Elections.
The decision to hold an all-mail primary election came after U.S. Rep. Don Young died unexpectedly in March, triggering a special election to replace him. Days after Young’s death, Fenumiai announced that an all-mail primary was the only option due to a possible shortage of poll workers and other logistical concerns.
In addition to the ballots mailed to all registered voters, the Division of Elections lists 170 in-person polling places where voters can cast their ballots. Most in-person polling places have been open since May 27 and will remain open until Friday. Only a handful of in-person polling places will be open on Saturday, the last day of voting by which all mail-in ballots must be postmarked to be counted.
According to the complaint, the Division of Elections typically operates voting machines that can accommodate visually impaired voters at in-person polling locations. However, the division “does not intend to place such units in statewide polling locations” for the primary race. The units will be available “only in a handful of locations,” in this election, and “the locations of the units are not published online.”
The division also offers voters the options of receiving the ballot by email, filling out the ballot, printing it at home and mailing it. This option, according to the complaint, would only be helpful to visually impaired voters who have access to a private computer with accessibility software and a printer. But this option requires the voter to fold their ballot, which could require assistance from another individual.
According to the complaint, “in order to exercise their fundamental right to vote, visually impaired voters are forced to either, depending on circumstance, forego voting altogether, or request the assistance of someone else to vote.”
Human rights commission representatives met with Division of Election workers before and after a visually impaired voter filed a formal complaint to address the concern. However, the lawsuit states that even after sharing the concerns, the division “does not plan to place touch screen voting machines at more than five locations throughout the State.”
Responding to the complaint, Sullivan with the Department of Law said, “the Division of Elections has systems in place to help all voters exercise their right to vote, even in a mail-in election.”
“A voter can get the assistance of a trusted person to complete the ballot received in the mail in the comfort of their own home. Election workers can help voters with their ballots at any absentee-in-person location or Division office. Or, voters can fill out a ballot privately online using their own computer or tablet set to their own specifications. And, at Division regional offices, tablets are available to fill out the ballot digitally for those who need it,” Sullivan said.
The lawsuit comes after a visually impaired resident of the Kenai Peninsula Borough complained to the human rights commission following the 2015 elections, when he did not vote because his polling place lacked a voting machine that could accommodate him.
After the complaint was filed, a local stakeholder group recommended a vote-by-mail hybrid system in which every registered voter would receive a ballot by mail, and accessible voting machines would be available in at leave five locations in the borough.
But Rick Malley, who filed the Kenai Peninsula complaint, said he was disappointed with the recommendations, saying every town — not just five — should have accessible voting machines.
And Alaska is not alone. When the coronavirus pandemic pushed many states to implement by-mail voting in 2020, visually impaired voters and disability rights groups filed lawsuits in several states, including North Carolina and Texas, asking for accessible voting options.