Alaska Supreme Court rules that absentee voters won’t need witnesses

Voters mark their ballots at Ketchikan’s Precinct No. 2 at The Plaza on Nov. 6, 2018. (Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

Alaskans voting by mail will not be required to have witnesses sign their ballots, after the Alaska Supreme Court upheld a judge’s ruling on Monday.

State law requires that a witness sign absentee ballots. The Arctic Village Council and others sued to block the requirement this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Anchorage Superior Court Judge Dani Crosby ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, but the order was put on hold after the Division of Elections appealed it to the supreme court. 

On Monday, the court affirmed Crosby’s injunction against the witness requirement, after hearing oral arguments in the appeal.

Natalie Landreth of the Native American Rights Fund, representing the plaintiffs, argued that some voters are at higher risk from the effects of COVID-19 — including those like Arctic Village residents who are far from a hospital. She said they shouldn’t have to interact with a witness. 

“Deciding whether or not to vote because you are afraid of getting sick is one aspect of the burden. Another is exposing yourself to disease,” she said. “There are only two outcomes, both of which are heavy: Either you don’t vote, because you are afraid, or you vote at the risk of contracting it.” 

Division of Elections lawyer Laura Fox argued that the court should reject Crosby’s ruling. She said the plaintiffs didn’t prove the witness requirement is a severe burden. And she said contradicting the written instructions mailed with ballots to have a witness would confuse voters. 

“A court order changing the rules in the middle of the election will cause confusion and distrust at a point where we’re already in this climate of unprecedented public skepticism about the election,” Fox said.

Justice Dario Borghesan questioned how the court should weigh voters’ concerns. He noted that although some voters may feel that the witness signature prevents vote fraud, the state hadn’t presented evidence that it does. 

“How can we essentially rely on public perception if it’s not grounded in the facts that we have in front of us?” Borghesan said.

The supreme court said a full opinion will be issued later.

The state has already received 10,915 absentee votes. Voters have requested 111,049 absentee ballots. The deadline to request absentee ballots is Oct. 24.