Juneau witness signature requirement waived for mail-in municipal election

Juneau City Hall
Juneau City Hall(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 24, 2020 at 4:38 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Juneau voters will not be required to have a witness signature on mail-in ballots for October’s municipal election. The waiver stands in contrast to November’s Alaska general election where voters are currently required to have a witness sign off on absentee ballots, a requirement which is being challenged in court.

The Juneau Assembly voted to waive the witness signature requirement for the municipal election by emergency ordinance on Monday.

“It lowers the complexity for some people. So, people who would have some difficulty getting a witness, they won’t have to do that,” said Juneau’s City Manager Rorie Watt.

The ordinance was passed after ballots were mailed, which means the packet that voters received still states that a witness signature is required.

In May, the Juneau Assembly voted to conduct the October election by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic, a first for the city and borough. Voters can also drop off their ballots in a secure drop box or vote in-person at City Hall or Mendenhall Valley Public Library.

While Juneau Municipal Clerk Beth McEwen is in charge of the election, the counting of the ballots will be done in Anchorage using its tabulation machines.

The Municipality of Anchorage held its first vote-by-mail election in 2018. Anchorage voters are not required to have a witness signature unless the voter cannot sign the ballot.

Anchorage election officials reached out to the Juneau clerk to offer assistance in conducting the October municipal election. Juneau bears most of the cost of the election, except for using Anchorage’s Election Center.

McEwen estimates the total cost to Juneau in staffing costs will be around $3,500.

The way votes are counted will be done differently this year for Juneau’s municipal election.

Ballots sent by mail in Juneau are heading to Anchorage where election workers are collecting them and bringing them to the Anchorage Election Center. Two days after the Oct. 6 election, McEwen and an assistant will fly to Anchorage carrying ballots that were cast in-person and dropped into secure drop boxes in Juneau.

McEwen said the ballots will be stored in checked luggage, and that she did a trial run to Anchorage earlier in the year.

After verifying voters' signatures on envelopes against state records, ballots will be taken out of their secrecy sleeves and run through a tabulation machine.

Preliminary results are expected in the evening of Oct. 9, McEwen said. It would then likely be another 11 days before the signature review process is complete for questioned ballots and the Juneau Canvas Review Board can certify the election.

State absentee ballot witness signature requirements

Civil rights groups sued the state in early September, demanding that Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer waive the same witness signature requirement for absentee ballots used in the Nov. 3 general election.

The civil rights groups argue the witness signature requirement could be a barrier for some voters trying to cast an absentee ballot during the pandemic for fear of getting sick. Meyer suggested that “witnessing could also take place through a window if necessary.”

The lieutenant governor also argued that he wouldn’t be able to waive the witness signature requirement himself as it is set under two separate Alaska statutes.

“If my office were to ignore this clear statutory language and count ballots that were not properly witnessed, those absentee ballots could later be invalidated in a court challenge,” Meyer wrote to the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska in early September. “It would be irresponsible for me to tell voters not to follow the witness requirement and risk their votes not counting.”

The case is currently before an Anchorage Superior Court judge with oral arguments set for Oct. 1.

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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