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As more and more states rely on vote-by-mail ballots, more and more communities are forced to confront the issue of the reliability of the Postal Service – especially when ballots show up late with no way of verifying that they were mailed on time. Ohio is the latest state to confront this problem, according to a story from Ohio.com:
Fred Lefton took his and his wife’s absentee ballots to the post office the Sunday before the Nov. 3 election with more than enough stamps on them to cover the postage.
He put the ballots into the mailbox there and assumed they would be postmarked the next day and sent to the Summit County Board of Elections.
A few weeks later, Lefton received a letter from the elections board informing him that when the ballots arrived, they lacked a postmark and couldn’t be counted. Lefton, who cared deeply about issues on the ballot, was outraged.
“It really is upsetting to know that you go to the trouble of casting a ballot and putting postage on it and it isn’t counted,” said Lefton, a pharmacist who lives in Hudson. “With some of the things, the vote went the other way. So why am I voting?”
Lefton is among about 900 Summit County voters whose mailed-in absentee ballots lacked postmarks and were received by the elections board after Election Day. Under Ohio law, boards can count late absentee ballots as long as they are postmarked by the day before the election and received within 10 days of the election. The boards use the postmark to gauge whether ballots met the deadline.
Voters’ frustrations, which once again may be tied to postal service cuts, were widespread enough to catch the eye of policymakers and spur them to action:
The problem — which was much greater than in past elections — prompted the Summit County Board of Elections last month to schedule a Dec. 28 hearing and subpoena postal officials to answer questions about what caused the increase and how to prevent this from happening again. Board members think the problem was worsened because of the recent closure of Akron’s mail processing center. The closing means mail from the Akron area now goes to Cleveland before it returns to Akron for delivery.
The board members fear the problem could be amplified next year, when a much higher voter turnout is expected for the presidential election.
Summit County’s postmark problem has attracted statewide and national attention, with the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus calling for a statewide investigation, six postal officials (including the U.S. deputy postmaster) visiting Akron and Secretary of State Jon Husted sending out a survey Friday to all 88 counties to gauge the issue’s scope.
The postal service has said it will develop a policy on postmarking absentee ballots in light of the concerns that have been raised. David Van Allen, a postal service spokesman, said Friday that postal officials will meet next week with Husted to “work toward the best solution” to meet the state’s postmark requirement.”
A separate story at Ohio.com describes the state survey:
Husted’s office emailed surveys Friday to the elections boards in all 88 counties, asking board officials to answer several questions about their experience with late ballots in the last election.
“We want to have all of the possible data that is available before we start trying to figure out what needs to be done,” said Josh Eck, a spokesman for Husted.
The survey asks boards:
- How many mailed-in absentee ballots they received after Election Day with no postmark.
- How many late absentee ballots they received with illegible postmarks.
- How many ballots they received after Nov. 2 with postmarks.
- How many ballots they got after Election Day that were marked by a postage method other than a traditional postmark, such as a postage meter.
Husted is asking the boards to submit their data by Friday.
In addressing the problem, Buckeye State officials are hoping to prevent further frustration for voters, one of whom described her experience in strong (for her) language:
Some of the voters were so upset that they called the elections board to complain. Among them was Barbara Ingram, 83, from Stow. A service called Partners in Time that assists her with errands put her absentee ballot — with the required postage – into a mailbox at a post office in Stow on the Sunday before the election. Like Lefton, she thought it would get there in time to be included in the vote count and wasn’t happy when she learned it wasn’t.
“I don’t normally use this kind of language, but I was pissed off,” she said. “I feel disenfranchised to have my ballot not be counted. I am angry.”
Ingram said she has voted consistently since she has been eligible to vote at age 21, the legal voting age at the time. She said she’s been voting absentee by mail for about three years and hasn’t ever had a problem.
“It has worked out beautifully for me,” she said. “I thought I had a done deal — getting my ballot to the mailbox.”
Ingram said she would love to attend the elections board hearing, though she isn’t sure if she’ll have a way to get there. She’s hoping elections and postal officials are going to find a way to fix the postmark problem.
“I think there should be an alternative to what’s happening,” she said. “Just having them talk to the post office is not enough. I’m worried about next year. This might not be a one-time thing.”
“I’ll do anything I can do legally,” Ingram said, adding that she is “mad as a wet hen in a thunderstorm.”
It will be interesting to see how widespread these problems are – in the meantime, voters concerned about their ballots will either switch back to in-person voting or mail their ballots even earlier before Election Day. Either way, you can bet that policymakers, campaigns and others will worry about VBM ballots in what promises to be an important state in an important election year.