Alaska judge to hear arguments over ballot witness rules

Attorneys for the state want a judge to deny a request to block enforcement of witness requirements for absentee ballots in Alaska, saying ballot envelopes listing the requirement have been printed and that the plaintiffs “inexcusably” waited until September to sue.

Superior Court Judge Dani Crosby is set to hear arguments Thursday. The plaintiffs are the Arctic Village Council, a tribal government; the League of Women Voters of Alaska and two individuals who have cited health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Division of Elections already has sent ballots to military and overseas voters and said it plans to begin mailing requested absentee ballots to voters in-state and domestically in the coming days. More than 98,000 people have requested a ballot by mail or email, division spokesperson Tiffany Montemayor said, and the division expects that number to grow. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 24.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, in their complaint, contend the witness requirement is unconstitutional during the pandemic and a bar to voting for those who don’t live with someone who can be a witness. The requirement forces the plaintiffs to “choose between their health and the right to vote,” attorneys for the Native American Rights Fund, American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law wrote.

Of the 43,545 absentee ballots returned for the August primary, 1,333 were rejected and of those, 458 were rejected for lack of witnessing, state attorneys wrote in court documents.

Those with ballots rejected in the August primary were notified of the rejection and the reason for it, so those with ballots rejected for lack of witnessing are on notice of the requirement ahead of the Nov. 3 general election, the state attorneys say.

The attorneys also say the Arctic Village Council is partly to blame “for the harm it complains of,” writing the tribe imposed an order that it now says inhibits voters from having witnesses for absentee ballots. The state attorneys contend say Arctic Village made an exception, of sorts, to the order for the primary, when at least one enforcement patroller agreed to offer door-to-door in-person voting to those who had yet to vote.

The tribal government restricted residents from gathering with those outside their households and barred congregating at community facilities in efforts to guard against the coronavirus, according to an affidavit from tribal administrator Tiffany Yatlin. At least 50 residents do not live in a household with someone over 18 years of age, she said. That is the minimum age for someone to act as a witness.