Updated | Monday, 5:30 p.m.
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.
Oral argument will be held on Monday, October 12, 2020 at 1:30 PM in the State of Alaska v. Arctic Village.
In the suit, civil rights groups are challenging the Alaska state law requiring witness signatures on absentee ballots, saying it’s an unconstitutional burden on voting rights during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lawsuit was filed in state court on Sept. 8.
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.
The case went to court on Oct. 2. Assistant Attorney General Lael Harrison, representing the Division of Elections, said changing the witness requirement so late in the process would confuse voters and undermine confidence that other voting rules need to be followed.
Superior Court Judge Dani Crosby said she was not convinced the witness signature has prevented any voter fraud. On Monday, Oct. 5, Judge Crosby said she intended to issue an injunction to eliminate the witness signature requirement.
A decision is expected today.