‘New reality’ of vote-by-mail includes delays and problems with postmarks

In this file photo from 2012, ballots are counted in Thurston County. Recent changes in the standard mailing times for First Class Mail, combined with rare problems with postmarks, have elections officials telling voters to mail their ballots early.
In this file photo from 2012, ballots are counted in Thurston County. Recent changes in the standard mailing times for First Class Mail, combined with rare problems with postmarks, have elections officials telling voters to mail their ballots early. The Olympian

The U.S. Postal Service isn’t delivering mail as quickly as it used to, and elections officials say that has the potential to disrupt voting-by-mail in the first presidential election since the service changes took effect last year.

First-class mail, which includes ballots, no longer arrives at its destination within one to three days, but instead takes two to five days — a reality that led the Postal Service this year to advise elections officials that voters mail their ballots a week before Election Day.

Theoretically, the longer delivery timeline shouldn’t matter in a state like Washington, where ballots are deemed valid based on the date they are postmarked, as opposed to the day they arrive at election offices.

But documents show that Postal Service officials also have noted issues with postmarking of ballots — and that’s what has elections officials in Washington and across the country especially worried.

“Elections officials have indicated illegible or missing postmarks are an issue,” according to a presentation the Postal Service prepared for election officials in August.

At that time, the agency said it was “working with elections officials to identify (the) scope of (the) problem.”

The combination of late-arriving ballots and bad postmarks are a cocktail that can lead to many more ballots being discarded, elections officials say. And that combination might be particularly troublesome in Washington, the only one of the country’s three vote-by-mail states that counts ballots based on their postmark date.

Prior to the recent changes in delivery schedules, if someone dropped their ballot in the mail on Thursday, Friday, Saturday — or even Monday — it probably would be delivered by Election Day on Tuesday, said Tammy Patrick, who sits on the Postal Service’s Mailers’ Technical Advisory Committee.

In those cases, “the postmark was irrelevant, because it wasn’t even looked at,” said Patrick, a former Arizona election administrator who represents the National Association of Election Officials on the advisory committee.

Now, she said, “The postmark becomes more relevant, because it might not arrive on time.”

Patrick said the bulky shape of ballots, as well as their rigidity, can occasionally cause problems in the automated machines that sort and postmark mail. As the Postal Service has consolidated its mail processing centers in recent years to help reduce costs, it has begun relying on the automated machinery more heavily, she said.

Last year, officials in Summit County, Ohio, could not count roughly 900 absentee ballots because they didn’t receive a postmark, according to a December letter signed by top officials from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and the Federal Voting Assistance Program.

According to the letter, which was addressed to U.S. Postmaster General Megan Brennan, “More and more election jurisdictions are reporting these kinds of challenges with postal ballots.”

“For voters across the country, no piece of mail is more important than their ballot,” read the letter, which was signed by Christy McCormick, the chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, as well as Matthew Boehmer, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program.

“We think you will agree that we can — and must — do better.”

Theresa Sibal-Sayles, the political mail coordinator for the U.S. Postal Service’s Seattle district, said she hasn’t heard of problems occurring with missing postmarks on ballots in Washington state.

“Right now we don’t have any issues,” said Sibal-Sayles, who also monitors other postal districts to ensure they are complying with election mail rules.

A spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, Ernie Swanson, wrote in an email Monday that “ballots mailed by the latest pickup time on the collection box will receive that day’s postmark, including on Nov. 8,” the date of the general election.

But Lori Augino, elections director for the Washington secretary of state’s office, said she’s heard stories of voters who insist they mailed their ballots before Election Day, yet still received a notice from her office that their ballots were postmarked too late to count.

“Although those cases are rare, it happens,” Augino said.

In response to the recent Postal Service changes, her office has been advising county elections officials to tell voters to mail their ballots no later than four days before Election Day. That’s especially important in a presidential election year, when many more people participate in elections and therefore more people have the potential to be disenfranchised by mistakes, Augino said.

“This is where we’re going to hear about it,” Augino said, referring to the potential of increased problems with ballot postmarks this year.

“If we know there is some reason it could be delayed, it is incumbent on us to share that,” Augino said.

In ballot instructions they mailed last week, Pierce County elections officials followed the state’s lead and included instructions for voters to return ballots four days in advance.

Those instructions drew sharp criticism from Tina Podlodowski, a Democrat running to become the next secretary of state, who said the ballot insert had the potential to confuse voters and suppress voter turnout.

In a letter to Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson, Podlodowski asked Anderson’s office to correct the “misinformation,” which she said “flies in the face of Washington state election law that says ballots may be postmarked up until Election Day.”

Anderson and members of her office said they are just following the most recent guidelines from the Postal Service and state elections officials, and want to make sure all voters’ ballots are counted.

“That’s important to us,” Anderson said in a video her office posted to YouTube this week.

While officials in King County, the state’s largest, didn’t include a written message telling voters to mail ballots by Nov. 4, they still will be encouraging people to vote early via social media posts and radio ads, said Kendall LeVan Hodson, the chief of staff for the King County Department of Elections.

Thurston County also is encouraging voters to return ballots “as soon as you vote.” But officials there are saying the extra time, rather than being a hedge against mail delays, is helpful when election workers have to sort out problems with voter signatures.

Hodson said King County officials also have a backup plan if a ballot is missing a postmark: They’ll look at the date a voter put next to their signature on the outside of the envelope. As long as the ballot was signed within the voting window before Election Day, it will be counted, she said.

“We’re always going to err in favor of inclusion,” she said.

Pierce County officials said they also will look at signature dates on ballots if a postmark is missing or illegible, a practice state law permits.

There is a way around potential Postal Service problems: ballot drop boxes. In Pierce County, there are 30 such drop boxes. Thurston County has 28.

All ballots placed in drop boxes by 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 8, will be considered valid, without the need for a stamp or a postmark.

Voters also can go to their local post office in person on or before Election Day and request that a postal worker postmark their ballot by hand — something Patrick highly recommends. In Thurston County, some post offices will be open until 8 p.m. on Election Day for that purpose.

Patrick said it’s good practice for local elections officials to warn voters of the new potential for delays with postmarking and processing ballots, to ensure voters can adjust their habits accordingly.

“The new reality is you need to put it in the mail early to give the Postal Service extra time to make sure it gets there.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

Democrats announce lawsuit over ballot issue

The Washington State Democrats have announced their intention to possibly sue Pierce County over instructions issued about mailing deadlines for ballots.

Democrats allege in a news release that saying that ballots need to be mailed by Nov. 4, not the Nov. 8 date by which they must be postmarked to count, will confuse voters and suppress turnout.

The party will be holding a news conference in Seattle at 11 a.m. Thursday (Oct. 27) to announce their lawsuit.