Judge to hear arguments in Alaska ballot access case

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A state court judge plans to hear arguments Friday in a lawsuit alleging that Alaska’s by-mail special primary for U.S. House discriminates against voters with visual impairments.

It was not immediately clear how quickly Superior Court Judge Una Gandbhir might rule. The election is Saturday.

The lawsuit was filed this week by Robert Corbisier, executive director of the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights on behalf of a person identified as B.L., a registered voter in Anchorage with a visual impairment.

Attorneys for Corbisier are asking the judge to prevent state elections officials from certifying the results of the special primary until measures are enacted that ensure voters with visual impairments “are given a full and fair opportunity to cast their votes independently, secretly and privately.” The state has set June 25 as the target date for certification.

The attorneys in court filings said the election lacks options that would allow people with visual impairments to cast ballots “without invasive and unlawful assistance from a sighted person.”

They had asked Gandbhir to mark the case as confidential, citing privacy interests. They noted the lawsuit stemmed from a complaint that had been filed with the human rights commission and argued it was subject to confidentiality requirements.

But Gandbhir rejected that argument, saying the case “is the essence of public interest.” Gandbhir ordered the parties to identify the complainant using only initials and for personal identifying information to be redacted from public filings. The case otherwise remains open, the judge ruled.

Attorneys for the Alaska Department of Law, defending state elections officials, said the lawsuit seeks to “upend” the election.

They said the division is conducting the election “using the long-established and familiar absentee voting process available to voters in all elections.”

Election officials began sending ballots to registered voters in late April, and there have been opportunities for early and absentee in-person voting in communities around the state. Voters also can have ballots sent to them by fax or electronic delivery.

Attorneys for Corbisier said the division typically has touch-screen units at in-person polling sites but said the division indicated they would have them at only a few sites for this election.

Attorneys for the Department of Law said it was not feasible to send voting tablets to all absentee in-person voting locations.

But they said elections officials worked with Corbisier and B.L. on improvements to the online delivery options, which they said the plaintiffs initially “expressed satisfaction with.”

Elections officials have said they opted for a primarily by-mail election because of the tight timeline for holding an election following the death of U.S. Rep. Don Young in March.

Saturday’s special primary features 48 candidates, with voters asked to pick one. The four candidates who win the most votes will advance to a special election, set for Aug. 16, in which ranked choice voting will be used.

Gail Fenumiai, the division’s director, in an affidavit said the June 25 certification date is not “arbitrary.”

“Any delay in the special primary election or its certification will require costly, detrimental changes to the other elections scheduled to follow this year. State law dictates that with the special primary on June 11, the special general must occur on Aug. 16, the same day as the regular primary election,” she said.

If certification of the special primary is delayed, the division would have to postpone the special election, which she said would force the division to conduct it at a later date than required by law.

If the special election is not held the same day as the regular primary, Fenumiai said it likely would have to be conducted by mail because of the same concerns that prompted the by-mail special primary.