Civil rights groups have a request: drop the witness signature on ballots

A woman in a blue shirt feeds documents into a beige machien atop a table in an office.
A worker counting absentees at the Division of Elections in Anchorage in 2012. (Annie Feidt/Alaska Public Media)

Civil rights groups are asking Alaska’s lieutenant governor not to enforce the requirement that voters get a witness to sign the envelope of their mail-in ballots.

They say enforcing the requirement disenfranchises many voters.

“So we write to ask you not to enforce this requirement this fall: let every qualified voter freely vote during this pandemic,” the said in a letter this week.

Natalie Landreth, senior staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, says COVID-19 has made mail-in voting more important than ever while also making it harder for certain voters to safely obtain a witness signature. 

“I think these unusual circumstances are what have really highlighted just how burdensome that request is,” she said.

Landreth cited as examples elderly people who live alone, and single parents at home with children. 

“And three, a lot of tribes … are completely closed down because of infections, meaning you cannot leave your home,” she said. “So if you do not live with anybody else, how are you supposed to get a witness signature on that ballot?”

When Alaskans vote by mail, state law requires they sign the ballot envelope in the presence of a government official or an adult witness, who must also sign the envelope.

Landreth said the U.S. Postal Service’s new policy against witnessing ballot signatures isn’t helping.

“Make no mistake: if it’s not signed, they don’t count it,” she said. “And I’m speaking from personal experience.”

One year, Landreth said she was notified that her ballot wasn’t counted because it didn’t have a witness signature. She said it’s easy for a voter who is inexperienced or in a hurry to overlook that line on the envelope.

NARF, the ACLU of Alaska and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law have asked Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer and the Division of Elections not to enforce the requirement for the Nov. 3 election. Landreth says the groups are preparing to file a lawsuit if the state doesn’t grant the request.

The Division of Elections had no response to their letter Tuesday. But a spokeswoman said lack of proper witness signature was the No. 1 reason the Division rejected ballots in 2016 and 2018. 

About a third of ballots cast in last month’s primary came by mail or online.