Lawmakers worry Postal Service cuts, closures could hurt voting-by-mail

As it presses ahead with plans to cut costs, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) says it is also trying to avoid putting added pressure on states that allow residents to vote by mail.

The cash-strapped agency, which announced last week that it could close 223 or more mail processing centers in the coming months, has also said that it was working with state election officials to soften the blow on ballot collection during this presidential election year.

But, so far at least, the agency’s efforts are getting mixed reviews from local officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, with California’s secretary of state even calling on USPS to delay any facility closures until after November’s general election.

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USPS has long said that their consolidation efforts, which officials say are a key part of the agency’s push to lop $20 billion off its annual operating budget by 2015, would, in many cases, end next-day delivery of first-class mail. 

But representatives for the agency also told The Hill that ballots would still have a chance for overnight delivery, though election workers would have a smaller window to drop their haul off at processing centers. 

“We are currently implementing a comprehensive outreach to election officials to let them know that overnight service for first-class mail ballots can still be maintained as long as the ballots are entered at our processing centers in time for overnight handling in the local area,” said David Partenheimer, a USPS spokesman. 

Due to a previous deal made with lawmakers, the Postal Service has also said that it won’t close any facilities until at least May 15. And Partenheimer added that USPS would not close any processing centers after August, “to assure prompt delivery of election ballots, other election mail and holiday mailings.”

As it stands, millions of voters are expected to vote via mail this year, either through absentee ballots or in states like Oregon and Washington that conduct elections entirely through the mail. 

In 2009, Congress also enacted a measure aimed at ensuring that the ballots of service members overseas are counted, a law which requires states to provide ballots to those voters at least 45 days before an election.

The Election Assistance Commission, a federal agency, has said that somewhere in the neighborhood of 17 million to 18 million ballots were sent through the mail in the 2010 election.

Historically, voter turnout is also higher during presidential election years, and some election observers have said that voting through the mail has gotten more and more popular in each successive election cycle. 

With all that in mind, Debra Bowen, California’s secretary of state, sent the Postal Service a letter last week asking that the agency hold off on closing facilities until at least Nov. 15.

Bowen, a Democrat, said that when USPS closed three processing centers in California in 2011, vote-by-mail ballots took up to seven days to arrive at local election offices. USPS announced last week that it was looking to close 14 California facilities in the months to come. 

“While I certainly sympathize with the financial challenges faced by the USPS, I do not support a plan that undermines the timely delivery of election materials in the middle of a presidential election year,” Bowen wrote to Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe. 

And even with USPS saying the agency will limit the impact of the consolidation plans on November’s general election, Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for Bowen, noted that California and other states plan on holding primary elections in the weeks after May 15.

“The Postal Service’s promises do not match up with what’s happened on the ground in California,” Winger said. “There’s no reason to believe, with more massive closures, and during a presidential year, that this could be more successful this time around.”

To the north of California, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) expressed similar concerns about the USPS consolidation plans, which would close five processing centers in Oregon. 

In a statement, Wyden said that would place an undue burden on Oregon’s vote-by-mail system, and make it harder for election officials to handle votes from the eastern part of the state this year.

“Not knowing how long it will take to process those ballots could disproportionately affect rural voters,” Wyden said in a statement. “Closing these facilities carries many unintended consequences. It is not a risk worth taking.”

In 2010, California (almost 5 million) and Oregon (roughly 1.5 million) had the first and third most ballots sent through the mail, respectively. 

The election process for the two states is also, arguably, more reliant on postal efficiency than other places. Both California and Oregon require election officials to have received ballots by Election Day.

In other states, like Washington, where 2.5 million votes were delivered through the mail in 2010, ballots have to be postmarked by Election Day.  

Still, election officials in Oregon and Washington have also said they expect the USPS consolidation plans to have just a minimal impact on ballot collection, and postal officials have not given any hint that they will hold off on their realignment efforts. 

Kate Brown, Oregon’s secretary of state, said that any USPS facility closures would not affect her state’s primary, which is scheduled for May 15.

Brown, a Democrat, also told The Hill that her office would step up its outreach efforts to let voters know about the postal changes. 

“We’ve been working together for several months,” Brown said about USPS. “They’ve been upfront from the beginning, and we consider them full partners in this.”

Brian Zylstra, a spokesman for the Washington secretary of state, said his office would, starting with a primary this August, tell voters to put their ballot in the mail on the Monday before an election. 

“We really see this as a minor inconvenience,” Zylstra said. 

The Senate is expected to debate a bipartisan postal overhaul bill in the coming weeks. But the measure has drawn some objections from Democrats in the chamber, and the legislation also differs in significant ways from a proposal being pushed by House Republicans.