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Last week, I wrote about an emerging controversy in Ohio about the problem of late-arriving vote by mail ballots and concerns that some of those ballots could have been counted but for shortcomings in the way the state and local election offices determine when they were mailed. Late last week, Secretary of State Jon Husted issued a directive to county election boards making changes to the way such ballots are to be handled. The Akron Beacon-Journal has more:
Three months after thousands of votes were tossed out in the last general election, some wrongly so, Ohio Secretary of State John Husted took action Friday to begin to fix Ohio’s error-prone absentee ballot system.
The Beacon Journal first reported the issue of mishandled late ballots when Summit County elections officials discovered an inordinate amount of late ballots lacking postmarks, used to date and prevent stamps from being used twice. Despite a stalled bill that would allow other markings to be used in lieu of the missing postmarks, 861 absentee ballots were tossed in Summit County by rule of state law, as interpreted by Husted.
Husted has blamed the U.S. Postal Service for not postmarking late ballots, which can arrive up to 10 days late but still be counted if mailed out by the day before election day. But Husted also has said state law prevents him from accepting anything but a postmark as proof of the date of mailing, even after Cuyahoga County officials discovered that bar codes found on 90 percent of mail-in ballots that lacked postmarks could be used instead.
On Friday, Husted changed his opinion, allowing the use of the bar codes, which require the purchase of a $500 scanner to read.
“This policy is consistent with the spirit of the law and common sense dictates that we should use technology to count every ballot we can,” Husted said in his directive to election workers statewide on Friday.
Husted, following recommendations by local county officials and the U.S. Postal Service, also advised elections offices to switch from a large, flat return envelope to an envelope-sized letter, which is more likely to be processed by post office machines that apply either the postmark or the now eligible bar code.
Husted maintained that his office, which has met or spoke with federal postal officials on several occasions since November, has worked diligently to ensure that thousand more ballots are not erroneously tossed out as Ohio prepares for its high-profile, influential role in the presidential primary race on March 15.
“When a ballot is cast by an eligible voter who followed all of the rules, their vote should count,” Husted said.
“Since the 2015 General Election, my office has aggressively pursued answers from the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to improve the system,” Husted continued. “As a result our policies and their practices will be better than they’ve been in the past.”
As is to be expected, not everyone likes the changes, suggesting they don’t go far enough:
State Rep. Emilia Sykes, D-Akron, said Friday that Husted’s directive is a step in the right direction. Even so, the chance remains for absentee ballots to miss any postal marking.
And there is no process for disenfranchised voters to appeal. Scanning bar codes in Cuyahoga County, for example, found that at least 250 absentee voters had mailed out their discarded ballots on time and would be likely candidates for appeal.
“We need a statewide, uniform appeals process that ensures our most fundamental freedom as Americans is not superseded by technical errors or illegible postmarks,” Sykes said. “While I am pleased to see the secretary of state has listened [to] my call to protect the right to vote in Summit County, we can and must do more to ensure postmarks do not continue to deter our democratic process and that every person’s vote counts. I hope the state will review the effectiveness of this directive immediately following the March election.”
One key aspect of the plan going forward is improved messaging to voters, encouraging them to return their ballots promptly and alerting them to potential postal delays:
Local elections officials have talked about educating absentee voters, perhaps by stuffing the ballot envelopes with letters that advise them to mail their votes in well ahead of election day, especially since the postal service no longer guarantees next-day delivery after budgetary cutbacks.
Husted promised to provide a template mail insert for the 2016 elections.
“As election officials, we are doing all we can do to make sure it is easy to vote and hard to cheat,” Husted said. “But we need the voters’ help. Please do not procrastinate in requesting and casting your absentee ballot and utilize the resources that we have available to you online to make your voting experience hassle-free.”
Indeed, Husted’s directive is accompanied by a “special notice” to voters that explains all the different ways in which a ballot can be returned and outlines the do’s and don’ts of affixing postage to a ballot in order for it to be received and counted. Most importantly, it bears this sentence right at the top: The U.S. Postal Service estimates that it may take 2 to 5 days for your voted absentee ballot to be delivered to your board of elections by mail. You can count on state and local officials repeating that fact and urging voters to return ballots promptly as balloting begins for the state’s March 15 presidential primary.
This action is just the latest by states and localities across the country to address impacts on voting by changes to the Postal Service. It will be interesting to see if the changes have any effect – especially on voter behavior – as we get closer to the primary. Still, it’s encouraging to see the SoS and local officials working together to help voters maximize their chances to cast a successful ballot.
Stay tuned …