‘Alarming’ rural Alaska ballot rejection rate sparks expectation of legal challenges

A sample ballot of what ranked choice voting will look like in Alaska.
A sample ballot of what ranked choice voting will look like in Alaska.(Connor Matteson)
Published: Jun. 27, 2022 at 7:42 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Several Alaska voting advocacy groups are considering what to do in response to an “alarming” number of ballots that were rejected for the special congressional primary election, which is turning to talk of filing legal challenges.

The Alaska Division of Elections shows that 7,504 ballots were rejected from a total of 164,856 ballots that were cast in the state’s first all-mail election, representing a statewide rejection rate of 4.5%. In parts of rural Alaska, that rate was almost four-times the statewide average.

Over one-third of ballots rejected was because of “improper or insufficient witnessing,” which was the leading reason why votes weren’t counted. Voters are required to have another Alaskan aged 18 or older to witness them signing the envelope containing their absentee ballot, and then the witness needs to sign the ballot envelope themselves.

In 2020, the Alaska Supreme Court temporarily waived that requirement due to concerns some voters expressed of being exposed to COVID-19 in order to get that witness signature. A full decision was published by the court almost a year later, raising doubts about how effective witness signatures have been in combating voter fraud in Alaska.

“The superior court concluded that, “[b]ased on the record before it,” it could not find that the witness requirement was “an effective tool for detecting voter fraud,” and we must agree,” the court’s six justices said.

Sen. Bill Wielechwoski, D-Anchorage, noted that the voter’s signature and witness’ signature are not verified at a state level, like they are in Anchorage municipal elections. And no one checks if the witness is a real person, he added.

“In this case, it’s just a meaningless, bureaucratic requirement that is causing thousands of Alaskans’ ballots to be rejected,” Wielechowski argued.

Gail Fenumiai, director of the Division of Elections, was not available for an interview on Monday to answer questions about the rejected ballot statistics. She said by email that she hasn’t analyzed the data yet after the election was certified last Friday.

”However, that being said, the division must follow the provisions of state law,” she added. “If there is not a voter signature, a voter identifier, a witness signature and a postmark on or before election day the ballot cannot count. These provisions have been in place for decades.”

Jackie Arnaciar Boyer, policy director at Native Peoples Action, said the recent rejection rates in rural Alaska were “unacceptable.” Boyer called for a better education campaign from the division, and was troubled that over one-quarter of rejected ballots were postmarked after Election Day, meaning they couldn’t be counted.

The Division of Elections has told voters to send in their completed by-mail ballots as soon as possible after they are received. Boyer said a lot of voters may not know that ballots are mailed from across Alaska and postmarked in Anchorage, which means Alaskans casting a ballot by mail close to Election Day should speak to a postal clerk to ensure their ballot gets counted or they may need to find another way to vote.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska supported the successful 2020 challenge of the state’s witness signature requirement. Stephen Koteff, the nonprofit’s legal director, said the ballot rejection rates in parts of rural Alaska are “alarming.” And he raised broader constitutional questions.

Currently, state statute requires voters to be informed why their ballot was rejected 10 days after an election was certified. But the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that 24 states have some mechanism in place which allows election officials to contact voters before Election Day to inform them that their ballot won’t be counted unless it is corrected. The mechanism is commonly called “ballot curing,” but Alaska doesn’t have a process like that in place.

The Alaska Legislature failed to pass an election bill during the last legislative session, which included a provision for ballot curing. Fenumiai said last week that state statute doesn’t specifically allow for ballot curing, meaning it can’t occur.

Koteff says that is irrelevant. He argues voters are effectively having their constitutional due process rights violated by having their ballots rejected without a chance to fix them. He said he couldn’t comment on whether the ACLU of Alaska would be filing a lawsuit, but he said the organization is “looking carefully at next steps.”

The Native American Rights Fund was the lead group behind the 2020 witness signature lawsuit, but the nonprofit also didn’t respond to a request by email if it would be behind a new round of legal challenges. Attorney Erin Dougherty-Lynch said in a prepared statement that its clients are “very concerned with the high number of ballots from rural Alaska that were rejected.”

The special general election will be held on Aug. 16, the same day as the regular primary elections. The Division of Elections will not be mailing ballots automatically like it did for the special primary election, instead, absentee ballots need to be requested on or before Aug. 6, which can be done in Alaska for any reason.

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