Victory! Alaskans will not need a witness to sign their absentee ballots for the November 2020 general election because of COVID-19, the Alaska Supreme Court decided Monday, October 12, 2020.

Background:

Alaska’s witness signature requirement for casting an absentee ballot is unconstitutional, and immediate injunctive and declaratory relief must be granted, a lawsuit filed on September 8, 2020 against Lieutenant Governor Kevin Meyer, Director of the Alaska Division of Elections Gail Fenumiai, and the Alaska Division of Elections argued. The lawsuit (Arctic Village Council v. Meyer) sought to waive a provision of a state law for the upcoming 2020 general election that requires voters who submit a mail-in ballot to have a witness sign their ballot return envelope, even in the midst of the highly contagious and deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

Alaska’s witness signature requirement would force interaction on those who live alone, are immunocompromised, or have been self-isolating since the beginning of the pandemic. These voters reasonably fear contracting COVID-19 and have chosen not to be in the presence of others. The suit claims that the witness signature requirement places a significant burden on the fundamental right to vote, because people will have to risk their health and well-being to vote, or not cast their ballot at all.

Case Updates:

October 12, 2020: Alaska Supreme Court Waives Witness Signature Requirement

Alaskans will not need a witness to sign their absentee ballots for the November general election because of COVID-19, the Alaska Supreme Court decided Monday, October 12, 2020. The state will be required to count unsigned ballots and to do voter outreach regarding the change.

NARF Staff Attorney Wesley Furlong responded to the court’s decision, “This witness requirement serves no legitimate purpose. Given the pandemic, it is an unconstitutional obstacle for voters that could especially affect Alaska Native communities. We are pleased that the courts have protected Alaskan voters for the upcoming election.”

Yesterday’s decision upholds the decision from Anchorage Superior Court Judge Dani Crosby, who last week ruled that the requirement “impermissibly burdens the right to vote” during the pandemic.

“Alaska’s highest court did what Lieutenant Governor Kevin Meyer refused to do, it ruled to protect the most fundamental right in our democracy—the right to vote. It is the Lieutenant Governor’s duty to protect the Alaska and US Constitutions, but he failed to do his job. Instead he spent thousands of taxpayer dollars fighting to protect the witness signature requirement, which does nothing more than suppress voters and muzzle voices,” said ACLU of Alaska Executive Director Joshua Decker.

“No Alaska voter will have to sacrifice their health and well-being to cast their vote this November,” said Pooja Chaudhuri, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “This ruling is another victory in the fight against voter suppression efforts. While Alaska’s election officials failed to take common-sense steps to protect the fundamental right to vote, we are happy the courts ruled in our favor.”

October 5, 2020: Alaska Superior Court Rules Ballot Signature Requirement is Unconstitutional During Pandemic 

The Superior Court for the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, ruled that the witness requirement for absentee ballots is unconstitutional during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parties in this case are working now to determine how the Election Division can alert voters about any subsequent changes.

When the preliminary injunction is finalized and implemented, the Anchorage Superior Court’s ruling in Arctic Village Council v. Meyer will waive state law for the November general election that requires voters who submit a mail-in absentee ballot to have a witness sign their ballot return envelope, even in the midst of a highly contagious and deadly pandemic.

Alaska’s witness signature requirement would force interaction on those who live alone, are immunocompromised, or have been self-isolating since the beginning of the pandemic. These voters reasonably fear contracting COVID-19 and have chosen not to be in the presence of others.

NARF Staff Attorney Natalie Landreth explained, “Today’s decision reflects the fact that there are many Alaskan voters burdened by the witness requirement. Thankfully, they won’t have to put themselves at risk this year.”

October 1, 2020: Hearing Held at Anchorage Superior Court

Photo of Anchorage skyline with mountains in the background
Anchorage, Alaska

NARF, ACLU of Alaska, American Civil Liberties Union, and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law were in Anchorage Superior Court today for arguments in their lawsuit seeking to make voting safer for Alaskans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The case, Arctic Village Council v. Meyer, asks the court to waive the burdensome witness signature requirement for casting an absentee ballot, and for the Division of Elections to proactively communicate the waiver to every Alaskan, should the court rule to protect voting access during the COVID-19 pandemic.

NARF Staff Attorney Natalie Landreth presented arguments on behalf of the plaintiffs and all Alaskans being forced to choose between their health and their vote during election 2020.

NARF Staff Attorney Wesley Furlong explained, “Tribes and individuals are taking the steps necessary to keep people safe during a devastating pandemic. The state should be helping them, not making them choose between their health and well-being and their ability to vote. There is no valid reason to encourage unnecessary contact during a health crisis like this one.”

Until the courts rule otherwise, Alaskans opting to vote-by-mail for the November election will be forced to find a witness to sign the envelope of their absentee ballot – even if that requires voters, including the most vulnerable, to dismiss COVID-19 mitigation guidelines recommended by public health experts.

“We’re asking for the state to take small steps that will have a great impact on Alaskans, steps that educate the people, protect their rights, and ensures that their vote is counted and their voice is heard. There were 456 ballots rejected in the August primary because of this useless requirement. That is 456 voices that Alaska’s government muzzled: even one is too many,” said ACLU of Alaska Executive Director Joshua Decker.

“Alaskans should not be forced to choose between their health and safety or exercising the constitutional right to vote,” said Pooja Chaudhuri, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Alaska’s highest election officials should have taken these common-sense steps to protect voters and ensure the will of the people is heard. Since they have not, we are turning to the courts for relief with just weeks to go before the election.”

This case was brought on behalf of the following four plaintiffs:

  • Arctic Village Council is a federally-recognized Indian tribal government that exercises powers of self-governance and jurisdiction over its Neets’ąįį Gwich’in tribal members living in Arctic Village. Because COVID-19 has devastated indigenous people across the nation, including an outbreak in Arctic Village, the Council has taken unprecedented measures to ensure the health and safety of its members. In August, the Council closed the only in-person polling place, as they determined that it would be impossible for them to do in-person voting safely. Instead, they encouraged people to vote by mail, which left some members with the choice to either break quarantine to secure a ballot witness or sacrifice their vote.
  • League of Women Voters is a non-partisan organization that encourages informed and active participation in American democracy. Many of its members are practicing public health expert recommended practices to reduce the spread of deadly COVID-19. Because of the witness requirement, its members are being forced to choose between their health and their vote. Additionally, the organization has been forced to allocate funding and resources to prevent the voter disenfranchisement of its members, instead of other critical voter engagement opportunities.
  • Elizabeth L. Jones is a 71-year-old woman who has never missed an election. But for the first time, she could be forced to sacrifice her vote if the witness requirement is not waived. She lives alone in Fairbanks and suffers three underlying health conditions that make her extremely vulnerable of contracting COVID-19.
  • Barbara Clark, 72, is an Anchorage woman with underlying health conditions that make her extremely vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. She estimates she left her home fewer than 12 times in six months, and only for essential activities like doctor’s appointments and to take a COVID test.

September 8, 2020: Civil Rights Groups Sue to Expand Vote-by-Mail Access

Alaska’s witness signature requirement for casting an absentee ballot is unconstitutional, and immediate injunctive and declaratory relief must be granted, a lawsuit filed on September 8, 2020 against Lieutenant Governor Kevin Meyer, Director of the Alaska Division of Elections Gail Fenumiai, and the Alaska Division of Elections argues. The lawsuit seeks to waive a provision of a state law for the upcoming general election that requires voters who submit a mail-in ballot to have a witness sign their ballot return envelope, even in the midst of the highly contagious and deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

The suit claims that the witness signature requirement places a significant burden on the fundamental right to vote, because people will have to risk their health and well-being to vote, or not cast their ballot at all. Allowing the witness requirement could disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters in Alaska who cannot risk contact with other individuals to vote in-person or obtain a witness signature on their absentee ballot. A preliminary injunction was also filed today that hopes to immediately abolish the requirement and guarantee voters the ability to vote-by-mail.

NARF Staff Attorney Wesley Furlong explained, “There are elders and Alaska Natives across the state who live alone and are protecting their health and community by staying home. 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.”

Alaska’s Witness Signature Requirement forces interaction on those who live alone, are immunocompromised, or have been self-isolating since the beginning of the pandemic. These voters reasonably fear contracting COVID-19 and have chosen not to be in the presence of others. Because of the requirement, they will either have to interact with other citizens, or not cast their ballot at all. Among the communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 are Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

“It is in no way permissible to force residents to sacrifice their health and well-being just to exercise their right to vote, but that is exactly what’s happening because Alaska’s highest election officials have failed to take the necessary steps to ensure that residents can vote safely amid the pandemic,” said Pooja Chaudhuri, associate counsel at the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “With the election just weeks away, we are turning to the court to provide immediate relief and defend the right to vote for people all across Alaska. We live in a Democracy, and a key component of our society is giving everyone the opportunity to have their voice heard.”

“There is no greater disservice to our state, our communities and our country, than allowing voters to be suppressed,” ACLU of Alaska Legal Director Joshua Decker said. “Every vote rejected because of this unnecessary barrier is a voice of an Alaskan left behind at the choice of their government.”

Last week, the ACLU of Alaska, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Native American Rights Fund sent a letter to Alaska Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer and Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai asking they exercise their power to protect the health of Alaskans and our democracy by waiving the needless requirement.

In a response from Meyer on Friday, he refused to make this necessary change and was unwilling to protect the votes of every Alaskan. He, Fenumiai, and the Alaska Division of Elections are now named as defendants in this lawsuit.

“Removing the witness requirement during the COVID-19 pandemic is a common-sense solution that protects Alaskans’ health and their right to vote,” said Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

The litigation, Arctic Village Council et al. v Meyer et al., was filed in the Superior Court for the State of Alaska for the Third Judicial District at Anchorage. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Alaska and the Native American Rights Fund represent the Arctic Village Council, League of Women Voters of Alaska, and two eligible, registered voters who intend to vote by mail.

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