Anchorage judge says witness requirement for absentee ballots ‘impermissibly burdens the right to vote’

But, more information is needed before the requirement is eliminated
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Alaska "I voted today!" stickers(KTUU)
Published: Oct. 5, 2020 at 11:16 AM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - An Anchorage judge says the witness requirement for absentee ballots “impermissibly burdens the right to vote” for the Nov. 3 general election. But, Superior Court Judge Dani Crosby wants more information on how eliminating the requirement can be communicated to voters before the change goes into effect.

Under Alaska statute, voters must have someone 18 years or older witness them signing the envelope containing their absentee ballot. The witness must also sign the envelope themselves.

On Monday morning, a preliminary injunction was granted by Crosby, waiving that requirement with a caveat: the civil rights groups that filed the suit and the State of Alaska will need to come up with a way by Tuesday afternoon that the court’s order can be implemented.

The information submitted to the court would need to describe how the Division of Elections would inform voters of the change on social media, traditional media, and possibly, by mail advertisements.

The ballot package received by voters would still state a witness is required to vote absentee.

Four civil rights groups filed the lawsuit in September on behalf of two elderly Alaskan voters who are immunocompromised and live alone. The suit alleged that a witness requirement for absentee ballots could disenfranchise the two voters who are concerned about contracting COVID-19.

Crosby agreed with the civil rights groups in her decision. “If the Witness Requirement is not eliminated, it will force Plaintiffs and other voters to choose between risking their health by coming into contact with a witness or forgo their right to vote entirely,” Crosby wrote.

The Anchorage judge said it was unclear how the witness requirement prevented potential voter fraud because the witness has “no obligation to review the voters' identification, unlike a notary witness.”

Crosby also disputed the State of Alaska’s argument that the change would confuse voters because they would understand waiving the witness requirement is solely for this election, “given the widespread effects of the pandemic on every aspect of daily life.”

Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer had said he was unable to waive the witness requirement as it falls under an Alaska statute. He said that voters could come up with creative solutions if they were concerned about COVID-19, including having a witness watch an absentee ballot being signed through a window.

Gail Fenumiai, the Division of Elections director, said on Monday that 105,554 Alaskans have requested absentee ballots for the general election which is over triple the number that were used by voters in 2016. Over 3,000 absentee ballots have already been returned to the Division of Elections.

Thousands of absentee ballots will be mailed to voters on Monday.

Crosby is providing the State of Alaska with an opportunity to seek for her order to be paused until it is reviewed by the Alaska Supreme Court.

Maria Bahr, a spokesperson for the Department of Law, said the department is consulting with the Division of Elections and “is evaluating the decision and considering possible options.”

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