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electionlineWeekly--January 27, 2011

Table of Contents

I. In Focus This Wee

U.S. Postal Service announces new special rate for elections mail
Program expected to be in place by 2012

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Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how hard you work, sometimes all it takes is being in the right place at the right time to fulfill years of effort. Such was the case for Cathy Pearsall-Stipek, chair of the Election Center’s Election Mail project.

For almost 15 years, in some fashion or another, the Election Center’s Postal Task Force and Election Mail project has been working on a way to improve the process and pricing of elections mail by creating a an elections class of mail instead of relying on nonprofit mail.

Although the group received positive feedback from the U.S. Postal Service and the Postal Regulatory Commission nothing ever really came from their proposal.

“The Postal Regulatory Commission loved the idea, but the U.S. Postal Service wasn’t really interested in creating anything new,” explained Doug Lewis, director of the Election Center. “As long as they were doing well, they didn’t need to listen to new ideas.”

Now, facing a more than $200 billion budget deficit, and with the Postal Service losing millions of pieces of mail a day to other modes of delivery, things are a bit different so about two years ago, the group began working on a new proposal for the U.S. Postal Service to provide a specific postal class for elections mail. The goals of the new proposal were:

  • That it be simplified so that there are not confusing rules to create barriers to usage;
  • That it apply uniformly across the US;
  • That it have first class service including all first class endorsements (enhancements included only with First Class Mail);
  • That it include all elections related mail including ballots and voter registration cards, election notifications, sample ballots, and voter communications;
  • That it not be subject to opening and inspection so that ballots or balloting materials are secure;
  • That it become available at a heavily discounted rate to allow more mail communications with voters;
  • And, most importantly, that it not be able to be caught up in regulatory red tape that kills the value of the program.

Once again, the proposal was met with interest from U.S. Postal Service officials, but not much headway was made until Pearsall-Stipek attended a conference in 2010 and came face-to-face with Paul Vogel, president and chief marketing officer of the U.S. Postal Service.

“Kathy just stood up when Paul Vogel took over and confronted him about the postal mail program and Vogel — this was one of those confluence of event things — Vogel to his credit latched on to the idea,” Lewis explained.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Postal Service announced its plans to move forward with an elections class mail program. A program that will allow any mailpiece created by a state authorized election/ voting registration official and mailed to a citizen of the United States for the purpose of participating in the voting process: Ballots, sample ballots, election notices, pamphlets, forms, polling place notifications, voter registration cards, and applications to name a few.

Any elections mail weighing up to 3.3 oz will be eligible for this postal rate and the mail, which will include a special elections class logo, will be treated as First Class mail instead of standard, thus decreasing the processing time to as little as one day in some cases.

While elections offices could use the new rate to provide postage-paid return envelopes for ballots, a voter will not have the possibility of going to their local post office to purchase an elections mail stamp.

Although the specifics — and costs — of the program have yet to be worked out, Lewis said they have an agreement in principle with the U.S. Postal Service for the program and hope to see something in place by 2012.

“Our goal is to at least have a program in place that can be used in 2012,” Lewis said. “But we’re under no illusions. This program will not be widespread in 2012 because new things aren’t necessarily going to catch your attention in a presidential election year, but there are states, particularly those with sophisticated mail operations, that I think will be able to use this in 2012.”

Sheryl Moss with the Washington Secretary of State’s office was part of the task force working on the program and she stressed the positive impact this program will have on Washington, which other than Pierce County is a vote-by-mail state.

“Most counties in Washington are currently able to send election mail, including ballots, at non-profit rates,” Moss explained. “While this rate is considerably less than first class, the service does not include many of the options first class provides.  This new class will allow us to have first class service at a reduced rate.”

While neither Moss nor Lewis felt the new rate would immediately create more vote-by-mail states, they did see how those states that are close to making the switch — California, Colorado, Montana and Florida — would be spurred on by this new elections class.

“This is typical of any time you use something new you don’t just overnight decide you’re going to use something and do it in a big way,” Lewis said. “It took Oregon 20 years to get where they are. I don’t honestly think at this point that anyone needs to worry about or get excited that it’s going to lead to vote-by-mail nationwide.”