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electionlineWeekly--September 15, 2011

Table of Contents

I. In Focus This Week

U.S. Postal Service once again in dire straits
Election administrators unfazed by possible service cuts, rate increases

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In what’s become an almost annual tradition, once again the U.S. Postal Service is threatening to cut services and increase postage costs as the agency faces a multi-billion dollar budget deficit.

With more and more voters choosing to cast their ballots by mail — either as absentee ballots or as actual mail ballots — state and local elections officials are taking the potential Postal Service service cuts in stride this time around.

“We are certainly are watching the situation, but don’t anticipate any major impacts,” said Katie Blinn, spokesperson for the Washington Secretary of State’s Office.

Earlier this year the Washington Legislature approved legislation making Washington the second all-mail balloting state in the country. Although much of the Evergreen state had long been voting by mail, the legislation made it the law statewide in 2011.

In his recent testimony for a Congressional committee, Patrick R. Donahoe, the postmaster general asked called on Congress to allow the Postal Service to make a variety of changes to its employee benefits system as well as how and for what price the mail is delivered.

Among those service changes are potential rate increases and once again a call to eliminate Saturday delivery.

“Postal rates have continued to rise over recent years, but we expect new, higher rates would not affect our plans,” said Freddie Oakley, clerk-recorder for Yolo County, Calif. “Voters and registrars are accustomed to accommodating this inflation.”

Yolo was recently given legislative permission to conduct a pilot program conducting three local elections using mainly mail ballots in the next six years.

Oakley doesn’t anticipate making any changes to the county’s new pilot program should the Postal Service raise rates and/or cut Saturday service.

According to a spokesperson, the Postal Service consults with election officials to discuss how changes or proposed changes in operations affect voting by mail.

“Our Five-Day Delivery Plan specifically mentions how we addressed customer concerns, including election mail ballots,” said David Partenheimer. “Also, we are committed to providing at least six month's advance notice before moving to a five-day delivery schedule and would continue to work closely with election officials to ensure a smooth transition.”

Tim Scott, director of elections in Multnomah County, Ore. said there would be few administrative impacts on the elections office due to cutbacks at the USPS, however, he noted voters will feel an impact.

“For the voter, there could be some inconvenience in not being able to have their ballot picked up by their home carrier on Saturdays,” Scott said. “The trend with vote-by-mail has shown that electors vote on the weekends and mail their ballots either Saturday or Monday with our largest mail returns happening on the three Tuesdays during the voting period.”

Scott said voters may need to take into account the lack of home service on Saturdays and get their ballots in the mail on Fridays. Scott said the secretary of state’s office, other elections officials in Oregon and the Postal Service have a long history of working well together to ensure that vote-by-mail is successful.

“Service cutbacks are a hurdle that will be felt most deeply by rural Oregon counties but we will work together to make it work for the voter,” Scott said. “Extending the 18 day voting window is one concept that has been discussed but I am not sure if the legislature will take up the concept in the next session.”

Officials in Washing and Oregon believe that the bigger impacts of service cuts will come from the closure of post offices and the elimination of numerous processing centers.

In Washington, Blinn said USPS’ decision to close dozens of processing centers across the country has already begun to impact delivery times citing the example that Olympia used to have a processing facility, but now mail must go to Tacoma for postmarks which can add at least a day to the process.

While increased postal rates would make elections officials rework their budgets, none of the officials interviewed felt there was a time or price point that would eliminate vote-by-mail in their jurisdiction.

“I think running polls is still far more expensive than vote-by-mail,” Blinn said. “And at the end of the day, the public has spoken, they want vote-by-mail.”