JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A state court judge has ruled that Alaska elections officials cannot certify the results of the by-mail special primary for U.S. House until visually impaired voters are given a “full and fair opportunity” to participate in the election.
Superior Court Judge Una Gandbhir did not say what exactly that would entail. The special primary is on Saturday.
She said in her order Friday that she strongly urges the parties to work together to find an appropriate remedy.
A spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Law says the agency is working on an emergency petition for review to the Alaska Supreme Court.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.
JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — There would be cascading effects if certification of Alaska’s by-mail special primary for U.S. House is delayed, including the potential for an August special election to be postponed, attorneys for the state argued in fighting a lawsuit filed over ballot accessibility for visually impaired voters.
Attorney Kate Demarest on Friday urged Superior Court Judge Una Gandbhir to reject a request by attorneys for Robert Corbisier, executive director of the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights.
Attorneys for Corbisier have asked Gandbhir to prevent election 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.” They contend the by-mail special primary discriminates against voters with visual impairments.
Corbisier earlier this week sued state elections officials on behalf of a person identified as B.L., a registered voter in Anchorage with a visual impairment.
Gandbhir heard arguments Friday, the eve of Saturday's special primary. She said she planned to issue an order soon.
The state has set June 25 as the target date for certification.
The special primary is part of a set of elections that will determine who will serve the remainder of late U.S. Rep. Don Young's term, which expires in January. Young died in March.
The special primary features 48 candidates. Each voter picks one candidate. The four candidates with the most votes will advance to the special election, in which ranked choice voting will be used. The winner of that contest will serve out Young's term.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs 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.”
Attorneys for the Alaska Department of Law, defending elections officials, in court documents 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 online 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. One of the attorneys, Mara Michaletz, told the judge Friday the division could have acted months ago.
Attorneys for the Department of Law in court documents said the division first became aware of the commission’s concerns about ballot accessibility on May 14 and has been working with the plaintiffs. They said it was not feasible to send voting tablets to all absentee in-person voting locations, noting it can take several weeks to prepare and test the equipment.
They said elections officials worked with Corbisier and B.L. on improvements to the online delivery option, which they said the plaintiffs initially “expressed satisfaction with.”
Demarest said there is “no more relief that can reasonably be awarded for this election tomorrow.”
Elections officials have said they opted for a primarily by-mail election because of the tight timeline for holding an election following Young's death.
Gail Fenumiai, director of the Division of Elections, 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.
Becky Bohrer, The Associated Press