New suit says Alaska’s absentee ballot witness law is unconstitutional during the pandemic

Voters mark their ballots in the 2018 general election at a Ketchikan precinct. (Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

Civil rights groups are challenging the Alaska state law that absentee ballots be signed by a witness, saying it’s an unconstitutional burden on voting rights during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in state court against Lieutenant Governor Kevin Meyer, a Republican who oversees Alaska’s elections.

The plaintiffs are the tribal council for the Interior Alaska community of Arctic Village, the Alaska branch of the League of Women Voters and two elders who say they’re at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

They’re being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union’s national and Alaska branches, the Native American Rights Fund and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Read full coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic from Alaska Public Media

The plaintiffs say that vulnerable Alaskans should not have to risk contracting COVID-19 in the process of obtaining a witness signature.

“What Lt. Gov. Meyer is doing is forcing Alaskans to choose between their health and their vote,” Josh Decker, the ACLU of Alaska’s executive director, said in an interview Tuesday. “For anyone in Alaska who does not have an adult who can witness their signature and wants to avoid risking COVID, they should be allowed to cast their ballot in November just like those Alaskans who live with someone.”

Tuesday’s lawsuit is the second filed over Alaska’s absentee voting program during the pandemic, and an array of similar lawsuits have been filed nationwide. In July, several other civil rights groups sued Meyer in federal court over his decision to mail absentee ballot applications to voters older than 65, but not to everyone else.

U.S. District Court Judge Josh Kindred, a recent appointee of President Donald Trump, dismissed the case last week, and the groups have since appealed the ruling.

Meanwhile, in late August, the ACLU and the other law firms in Tuesday’s lawsuit wrote to Meyer asking him not to enforce the witness signature law.

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

That requirement led to the rejection of 456 ballots in last month’s primary election.

Meyer wrote back last week saying the requirement is set out in state law and that he lacks the authority to waive it.

“If my office were to ignore this clear statutory language and count ballots that were not properly witnessed, those absentee ballots could later be invalidated in a court challenge,” Meyer wrote. “It would be irresponsible for me to tell voters not to follow the witness requirement and risk their votes not counting.”

Decker said Meyer’s highest duty is to uphold the U.S. and Alaska constitutions, including the Alaska Constitution’s explicit guarantee of the right to vote. And he noted that Gov. Mike Dunleavy has suspended dozens of other state statutes and regulations during the pandemic, including those applying to curbside pickup and delivery of alcohol.

Just like Dunleavy suspended those, Decker said, “Meyer should have honored Alaskans’ constitutionally guaranteed right to vote and suspended the voting barrier of witness signatures in this pandemic.”

The groups that filed the lawsuit Tuesday said that obtaining witness signatures during the COVID-19 pandemic has been made even more difficult by a new U.S. Postal Service directive that blocks workers from acting as witnesses.

A spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Law, Maria Bahr, said Tuesday that the state needs time to evaluate the new lawsuit.

Decker said his organization will continue to monitor Alaska’s election procedures in an effort to uphold voting access during the pandemic.

Correction: This story has been corrected to note that the state’s correspondence with the civil rights groups in advance of Tuesday’s lawsuit was with Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, not Gail Fenumiai, the state elections director.