Alaska Requirement Puts Voters at Risk in Midst of COVID-19 Pandemic


Civil Rights Groups Sue Lieutenant Governor Kevin Meyer to Expand Vote-by-Mail Access

Alaska state flagAlaska’s witness signature requirement for casting an absentee ballot is unconstitutional, and immediate injunctive and declaratory relief must be granted, a lawsuit filed on September 8, 2020 against Lieutenant Governor Kevin Meyer, Director of the Alaska Division of Elections Gail Fenumiai, and the Alaska Division of Elections argues. The lawsuit seeks to waive a provision of a state law for the upcoming general election that requires voters who submit a mail-in ballot to have a witness sign their ballot return envelope, even in the midst of the highly contagious and deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

The suit claims that the witness signature requirement places a significant burden on the fundamental right to vote, because people will have to risk their health and well-being to vote, or not cast their ballot at all. Allowing the witness requirement could disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters in Alaska who cannot risk contact with other individuals to vote in-person or obtain a witness signature on their absentee ballot. A preliminary injunction was also filed today that hopes to immediately abolish the requirement and guarantee voters the ability to vote-by-mail.

Native American Rights Fund Staff Attorney Wesley Furlong explained, “There are elders and Alaska Natives across the state who live alone and are protecting their health and community by staying home. How are they supposed to get a witness signature? The State of Alaska should be helping people vote during a pandemic, not making them choose between their health and their right to vote.”

Alaska’s Witness Signature Requirement forces interaction on those who live alone, are immunocompromised, or have been self-isolating since the beginning of the pandemic. These voters reasonably fear contracting COVID-19 and have chosen not to be in the presence of others. Because of the requirement, they will either have to interact with other citizens, or not cast their ballot at all. Among the communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 are Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

“It is in no way permissible to force residents to sacrifice their health and well-being just to exercise their right to vote, but that is exactly what’s happening because Alaska’s highest election officials have failed to take the necessary steps to ensure that residents can vote safely amid the pandemic,” said Pooja Chaudhuri, associate counsel at the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “With the election just weeks away, we are turning to the court to provide immediate relief and defend the right to vote for people all across Alaska. We live in a Democracy, and a key component of our society is giving everyone the opportunity to have their voice heard.”

“There is no greater disservice to our state, our communities and our country, than allowing voters to be suppressed,” ACLU of Alaska Legal Director Joshua Decker said. “Every vote rejected because of this unnecessary barrier is a voice of an Alaskan left behind at the choice of their government.”

Last week, the ACLU of Alaska, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Native American Rights Fund sent a letter to Alaska Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer and Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai asking they exercise their power to protect the health of Alaskans and our democracy by waiving the needless requirement.

In a response from Meyer on Friday, he refused to make this necessary change and was unwilling to protect the votes of every Alaskan. He, Fenumiai, and the Alaska Division of Elections are now named as defendants in this lawsuit.

“Removing the witness requirement during the COVID-19 pandemic is a common-sense solution that protects Alaskans’ health and their right to vote,” said Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

The litigation, Arctic Village Council et al. v Meyer et al., was filed in the Superior Court for the State of Alaska for the Third Judicial District at Anchorage. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Alaska and the Native American Rights Fund are representing the Arctic Village Council, League of Women Voters of Alaska, and two eligible, registered voters who intend to vote by mail.