Regular readers of this blog will remember that the last year has seen a sharp uptick in stories about how issues with the U.S. Postal Service have begun to affect states’ and localities’ management of vote by mail ballots. Many of those officials have wondered what to do about it – and the Bipartisan Policy Center has just issued a new report that examines the “new realities” of vote by mail and makes recommendations about how everyone involved can and should respond. Here’s an excerpt describing this “new reality:”
The Postal Service of 2016 does not operate under the same service standards as it did even one or two presidential cycles ago. Mail volume is down, and the USPS has adjusted its infrastructure accordingly. A restructuring of the USPS’s backbone—called “rationalization”—has resulted in the closing of many smaller processing plants across the country. Mail is now routed to larger plants equipped with sophisticated automation equipment that allows for ballot tracking. Delivery standards have also changed. First-class mail is now delivered to recipients within a two-to five-day window; standard mail now reaches its destination in three to ten days.
The reduction of mail-processing plants coincided with a shorter production schedule at each remaining processing plant. The shorter schedule helps the post office to maximize efficiencies of resources and has resulted in many fewer plants operating during the weekend. The impact of this change, though, is slower mail and less processing capacity ahead of Election Day, when ballots must be returned to election offices.
Where a voter lives determines the ways by which he or she can request a ballot, receive it, and return it. Laws about ballot counting govern what a voter must do to ensure that the ballot is counted. There are policies that can be implemented to work within this new reality and to maintain a vibrant alternative to funneling all voters to the polls on a single Election Day.
Here are some of the report’s suggestions …
For voters – know the deadlines for receipt of VBM ballots – and get a ballot hand-cancelled if necessary:
Variations among state laws impact the deadline for ballot return. For some states, ballots transmitted to the elections office through the mail must be received by the close of the polls (e.g., 7:00 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. on Election Day), while in other states, ballots transmitted via the USPS are accepted if the ballot is postmarked by a specified date, usually Election Day, and is received within a window of days after Election Day (anywhere from three to ten days is standard). Pennsylvania requires that the elections office receive all mail ballots by the Friday prior to Election Day, as these ballots are then sent to the polls for tabulation on Election Day. Thus, ballots must be correctly postmarked, or cancelled, by the USPS. The USPS advises that voters put their ballots in the mail five days prior to Election Day for states requiring the ballot be in-hand on Election Day and two days prior to Election Day for states that review postmarks and cancellations.
Voters need to consider the when and where of how they drop their marked ballots into the mail system. For example: How many days remain until the deadline for ballot return? Has the blue USPS mailbox already been collected that day (as shown on the box’s printed schedule)? If so, the ballot will remain there overnight—and potentially through the weekend if the ballot was dropped in the box on a Friday or Saturday as most blue mailboxes are not serviced over the weekend.
There are options for voters using ballot return via the USPS as the deadline approaches. If it is close to Election Day, it is important for voters to take their ballots into any post office and ask that it be “hand cancelled” or “round stamped,” especially in states that use the postmark to determine eligibility. This hand-cancelling service will postmark the envelope to ensure that the ballot is processed immediately. It can make the difference in a ballot counting or not.