Should Division of Elections count ballots without a witness signature? Judge to decide Monday.

Then-City Clerk Tom Moran presiding over Nome’s October 2014 election. (Matthew F. Smith/KNOM)

The No. 1 reason mailed ballots are not counted in Alaska is because voters bungle the requirement that they get a witness to sign their ballot envelope. Civil rights lawyers went to court this week to argue that in this pandemic year, the requirement should be waived.

“The plaintiffs in this case just want to be able to vote without risking their health or their lives, and the pandemic – no one’s fault – has taken away what used to be normal,” said Native American Rights Fund attorney Natalie Landreth, who represents voters in Arctic Village and elsewhere. 

Landreth argued the pandemic makes it hard for some voters to vote in person, as they usually do, or get a witness for a mail-in ballot. She wants an order telling the division to count ballots that lack a witness signature. Landreth says the state has many ways to get the word out to the public.

“They can post it on their Twitter account. How about an announcement on the Division of Elections web page? A few public service advertisements,” she suggested.

Assistant Attorney General Lael Harrison, representing the Division of Elections, said the change so late in the process would confuse voters and undermine confidence that other voting rules need to be followed.  

“There’s just a lot of nervousness at the division about the things we haven’t thought of yet and the unintended consequences,” Harrison said. “It’s so hard to predict how this would play out when we’re trying to do this at such a late date.”

Superior Court Judge Dani Crosby said she was not convinced the witness signature has prevented any voter fraud. She says she expects to have a decision Monday.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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