I. In Focus This Week
M. Mindy Moretti
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.”
II. Election News This Week
- On Wednesday, several civil rights organizations filed paperwork with the U.S. Department of Justice asking them to oppose an earlier “pre-clearance” of Texas’ new voter ID law. The groups — which according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian American Justice Center, the Advancement Project, the Southwest Workers Union, and the New York-based public policy and advocacy group DEMOS — said the law discriminates against black and Hispanic voters. “This law is a part of the largest legislative effort to turn back the clock on voting rights in our nation in over a century,” Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the civil-rights “action tank” the Advancement Project told the paper. “If this bill is allowed to stand, it will undermine the basic fabric of our nation’s democracy.” The groups filed a 31-page letter with the department’s Civil Rights Division asking federal officials not to give “pre-clearance” to the new law. They challenge whether there is a big voter fraud problem and say “voters of color” are less likely to have the identification. They also say it will be harder to get free election identification certificates as some Department of Public Safety offices have cut back hours or closed.
- Washoe County, Nev., where more than half of the voters in the special congressional race live, elections officials reported no problems and the ballot count began on time. A new state law requiring voters to show identification created fewer headaches than Tulsa County, Okla. elections officials expected on Tuesday. In New York, which held a special election and several other previously planned elections, the biggest issues arose before primary day. Several counties, including Broome had asked for a two-week extension because thousands of residents remain displaced from recent flooding. State officials refused to grant the extension and voting went on as scheduled although it remains to be seen what turnout was and how it was impacted by the flooding. In Oneida County, only a small handful of volunteers showed up to answer the 24 phones at the election call center. The county uses volunteers to take election results over the phone. Reportedly due to mistakes made by voting inspectors primary results in Suffolk County were delayed until Wednesday.
- You know how we at electionlineWeekly feel about stickers, so of course we had to bring you this item from Wisconsin. The Government Accountability Board, which overseas elections for the state of Wisconsin, unanimously adopted a policy this week that said universities could put stickers on existing student IDs to include information necessary to make the IDs compliant with the state’s new voter ID law. Many of the state’s student IDs do not include signatures or an expiration date which is required by the state’s voter ID law. The stickers will allow students to use their IDs without universities having to completely overhaul their ID systems.
- Personnel News:Long-time Rockford, Ill. board of elections Executive Director Nancy Strain retired this week after 30 years in the elections office and 10 years as executive director. Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced the appointment of Vicky Oakes as the supervisor of elections for St. Johns County. Oakes has served as the assistant supervisor of elections since 1988. Michael Morley officially resigned from the Mahoning County, Ohio’s board of elections this week. Toni Pippens-Poole has been appointed elections administrator for Dallas County, Texas. Pippens-Poole replaces Bruce Sherbert who was forced out in February. Cameron Quinn, previously Virginia’s chief state election official, was sworn in as general registrar for Fairfax County on Sept. 12, following her appointment by the Electoral Board.
- In Memoriam:Richmond County, Ga.’s original board of elections director Linda Beazley died this week. She was 71. According to Patrick Rice who served as the first chairman of the BOE when Beazley became executive director, Beazley was the driving force to bring the county’s election process into the modern age and it wasn’t an easy task in Richmond County where partisan politics have been contentious many times in past three decades, Rice said.
- Upcoming Event:The U.S. Election Assistance Commission will host roundtable on contingency planning in elections on Tuesday, Sept. 20 from 9am to 4pm. The roundtable will be available via webcast.