Civil rights groups sue state over ballots rejected in Alaska’s mail-in primary

The ballot for the U.S. House special election. (Photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Civil rights groups are suing Alaska elections officials over the state’s decision to reject more than 7,000 ballots during this year’s mail-in special primary election for U.S. House. The plaintiffs argue that the Division of Elections violated Alaska’s Constitution by failing to notify voters of problems with their ballots or giving them a chance to fix them — a process known as ballot curing.

More than 4.5% of ballots cast in the special primary were rejected, and the ballot rejection rate was much higher in communities with more Alaska Native residents.

Most ballots went uncounted because of problems with information on the envelope, incorrect identifiers or a lack of a witness signature. That’s something the lawsuit alleges wouldn’t have happened if the division had done a better job letting voters know what to expect. They also argue the division had time to let voters fix their ballots before the results were counted.

“Every vote counts and the state could take lead from any of the other many states that have already put in place measures to fix curable issues instead of rejecting votes,” NARF Staff Attorney Megan Condon said in a news release. “Without changes to the current system, the state can continue to reject a great number of votes cast by Alaska Natives and rural voters.”

In House District 38 — which includes Bethel and the Lower Kuskokwim area — the rejection rate was as high as 16%, according to the complaint. About 83% of voters in that region are Alaska Native.

House District 39, which includes Nome and the Bering Strait area, saw a rejection rate of 14%. House District 40 includes voters in Utqiagvik and Kotzebue. More than 12% of ballots were rejected there, according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs — the Arctic Village Council, the League of Women Voters and two Anchorage residents whose ballots were rejected — are asking the Alaska Superior Court in Anchorage to require the state to notify voters when their ballots have an issue that would leave it uncounted and give them a chance to fix it.

In a statement, state Department of Law spokesperson Patty Sullivan said state attorneys are reviewing the suit and will respond in court. But Sullivan offered a preview of the state’s position.

“A lawsuit in 2020 also challenged the lack of a notice and cure process, and the Division of Elections prevailed in that case,” Sullivan said in the statement. “The reality is that State statute does not include a notice and ballot cure process, and the Division is not free to disregard or rewrite the statutes passed by the Legislature.”

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