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Indian Country Today staff and wire reports

JUNEAU, Alaska — A lawsuit filed Tuesday asks a judge to block election officials from enforcing during the COVID-19 pandemic a requirement that Alaska absentee voters have someone witness them signing their ballots.

The plaintiffs are the Arctic Village Council, a tribal government; the League of Women Voters of Alaska; and two individuals that the lawsuit says have health concerns. 

The lawsuit seeks to have the witness requirement declared "unconstitutionally burdensome" on the plaintiffs' right to vote amid the pandemic.

"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?," said Native American Rights Fund Staff Attorney Wesley Furlong. "The State of Alaska should be helping people vote during a pandemic, not making them choose between their health and their right to vote.”

Maria Bahr, a state Department of Law spokesperson, said the department needs time to evaluate the complaint. The lawsuit names as defendants Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, who oversees elections; Gail Fenumiai, director of the Division of Elections; and the division.

Groups representing the plaintiffs — including the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska; Native American Rights Fund; and Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — last week asked Meyer and Fenumiai to not enforce the witness requirement this fall.

Meyer, in response, said making exceptions to the law, "even on a piecemeal basis, would erode the foundation upon which Alaskans have built their faith in the election process." 

He also encouraged voters to "think creatively" about how to fulfill the witness requirement "in a safe manner."

However the ACLU of Alaska, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Native American Rights Fund letter said the change was necessary during the pandemic.

“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.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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