Voting rights advocates filed a lawsuit today challenging an absentee ballot witness requirement that needlessly puts Alaskans at risk of COVID-19.
The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Alaska, Native American Rights Fund, and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
It seeks to waive a provision of state law, for the upcoming 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.
The case was brought on behalf of the Arctic Village Council, League of Women Voters of Alaska, Elizabeth L. Jones, and Barbara Clark.
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 adults, or not cast their ballot at all.
Among the communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 are Native Americans and Alaska Natives.
“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,” said Wesley Furlong, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.
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.
“There is no greater disservice to our state, our communities, and our country, than allowing voters to be suppressed,” said ACLU of Alaska Executive Director Joshua Decker. “Every vote rejected because of this unnecessary barrier is a voice of an Alaskan left behind at the choice of their government.”
“Removing the witness requirement during the COVID-19 pandemic is a common-sense solution that protects Alaskans’ health and their right to vote,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
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 democracy by waiving the needless requirement.
“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.”
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.
The case, Arctic Village Council et al. v Meyer et al., was filed in Anchorage Superior Court.