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 should mail their ballots back 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.”