Alaska Supreme Court waives witness requirements on absentee ballots

Voters must still sign the back of the absentee ballot envelope and provide one voter identifier
The witness requirement for absentee ballots has been waived by the Alaska Supreme Court....
The witness requirement for absentee ballots has been waived by the Alaska Supreme Court. Voters still need to sign the envelope containing absentee ballots themselves.(WNDU)
Published: Oct. 12, 2020 at 3:30 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Supreme Court has waived the witness requirement on absentee ballot envelopes for the Nov. 3 general election.

Before Monday’s decision, voters needed someone 18 years or older to witness them signing the envelope containing their absentee ballot. The witness needed to then sign the envelope themselves.

The brief decision announced by the Supreme Court agreed with a Superior Court ruling made last week that the witness requirement for absentee ballots “impermissibly burdens the right to vote" during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In order for a person’s vote to count, voters must still sign the back of the absentee ballot envelope and provide the voter identifier, such as date of birth, driver’s license number, etc.,” Tiffany Montemayor, a spokesperson for the Division of Elections, wrote by email. "The Division of Elections also recommends that voters date their signature on the back of the envelope.

“Normally, the witness would date their signature, but since there is no witness requirement, the voter is encouraged (but not required to) fill this information in. There is also nothing prohibiting a voter from having their ballot witnessed, and any ballot that is witnessed will be counted, so long as it meets all the other statutory requirements, just as it would have been prior to the court’s order.”

The Division of Elections is preparing an online video to inform voters of the elimination of the witness requirement for absentee ballots.

Attorney Laura Fox appeared on behalf of the state of Alaska and argued that trying to change the directions for voting at the last minute could damage the credibility of the Division of Elections and the integrity of the election, through voter confusion.

Justice Susan Carney pointed to a 1972 ruling, in which the court ruled from a position of confidence in voter’s abilities to make sense of the process, asking why the situation is any different.

“Because of the timing involved,” Fox answered. “Usually the division educated voters with consistent instructions, over a period of months, throughout the lead up to the election. Now the division has to try to quickly re-educate voters, in direct contradiction of the printed materials and past practice, in just a few weeks.”

Fox also pointed out that the plaintiffs in this case never brought forward experts or held hearings to provide clear evidence that getting ballots signed by a witness would increase the risk of being exposed to COVID-19.

On behalf of voters in Arctic Village, Native American Rights Fund Attorney Natalie Landreth started her arguments by acknowledging 438 new COVID-19 cases in Alaska, over the weekend.

“Petitioners would have Alaska’s most vulnerable voters leave quarantine and seek out witnesses for their absentee ballots, for no reason,” Landreth said. “This is not a normal election, because this is not a normal court hearing. One year ago, none of us could imagine that I would be in my kitchen, arguing a supreme court case. This is how radically the world has changed, and how quickly.”

In response to concerns over voter confusion, Landreth pointed out that the Division of Elections had recently redesigned ballots, reprinted almost 100,000 ballots and currently submit a corrected version of the candidate pamphlet, undercutting the argument that mid-election cycle changes cannot occur.

Landreth also said the pandemic is not the state’s fault, but the requirement is. Fox said the point is not the administrative burden on the division of doing the things listed in the preliminary injunction, but about the inherent harm of changing election rules in the middle of the election.

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