[Image via bipartisanpolicy]
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. [emphasis added]
For election offices – use the USPS “green tag” or other visual indicators to make sure ballots aren’t missed:
The USPS provides election administrators with the green Tag 191 to use on ballot mailings. This tag is affixed to mail trays containing ballots and provides an additional visual indicator that the items contained in the tray or on the pallet are official ballots and should be treated expeditiously. Ballot mailings are designated at the point of induction—when mailings are turned over to the USPS and enter the mail stream—as being official ballots. Election administrators should verify this is being done when they drop off their ballot mailings.
It is just as important that the mail ballot is distinguishable upon return to the election office, too. Visual indicators can help ensure that all ballots are returned by the deadline. For instance, the use of a colored envelope or stripe on the mail piece is visible in a mail tray and can help election officials easily identify ballots when mail plants and local offices are swept prior to the return deadline.
For legislators – look at state ballot request laws to see if a voter can actually receive and return a ballot in time:
The deadlines established for absentee ballot requests have almost universally been set prior to the USPS’s new delivery standards. States must address these standards statutorily in order to provide clarity for voters and to ensure that voters are not promised a service that cannot be met. For example, in the BPC analysis, 33 states have ballot-request deadlines within five days of Election Day. It is highly unlikely that a voter would be able to receive and return a mail ballot if he or she applies at the deadline. State laws do not serve the voters well when they mislead those voters into assuming their participation will be possible via mail when that is almost certainly not the case.
The USPS delivers to more than 150 million delivery points every day; a state with a deadline on the Friday or Monday before Election Day is institutionalizing failure—voters will never get their ballot in time to mark it and return it in time to count. The USPS does not have a recommended date by which mail ballots should be sent out to voters to ensure sufficient time to return a completed ballot— whether by mail or in-person drop off, as the law allows in a given state. [emphasis added]
For the Postal Service – make sure that new delivery processes don’t result in late or non-delivery close to Election Day:
Over the past decade, the USPS has made changes meant to increase efficiency and reduce costs. As a result of declining mail volume, the USPS has taken steps to consolidate mail processing facilities to adjust capacities for the lower volume environment. These changes have resulted in what many election administrators have come to call “no mail Tuesdays.”
Officials started noticing a downward trend in the amount of mail they received on Tuesdays during the 2015 state and local elections. Jurisdictions that did not have many elections in 2015 have seen the trend during the 2016 primary and presidential-preference election contests in their states. “No mail Tuesdays” will be particularly problematic during the presidential election this fall for states with deadlines that require the mail ballot be returned to the elections office by Election Day, which is, of course, on a Tuesday. [emphasis – with a side of incredulity! – added]
In order to mitigate the impact, the USPS should agree to the full processing of mail during the weekend prior to Election Day. Although there is currently some processing on Saturdays, not all functions that allow for mail to proceed through the mail stream occur over the weekend. For example, business reply mail is not processed during the weekend. This slight change to its processing schedule would greatly reduce the volume of ballots that would otherwise not be delivered in time to count.
In addition to the report, BPC has also sponsored the creation (with assistance from Democracy Works and support from the Democracy Fund) an online tool called electionmail.org that allows for real-time reporting of postal issues:
www.electionmail.org has been available since the start of the primary process this cycle. Election officials can submit reports about delivery delays, mail returned as undeliverable, and postmark issues, as well as address management concerns. BPC and Democracy Works are collecting the information to identify trends and potential national issues, and the information is also forwarded directly to the USPS Election Mail Manager and reviewed by the USPS Election Task Force for resolution. This effort is the first gathering and analysis of postal issues with election mail to date. Many of the recommendations in this report stem from issues that were brought to light to date via www.electionmail.org. The portal will continue to inform the creation of policy recommendations to improve the vote-by-mail process.
This report – and the other work that BPC is doing to help election offices and the Postal Service with navigating the “new realities” of vote by mail – is incredibly valuable. Kudos to the entire team (no doubt heavily influenced by PCEA commissioner and USPS whisperer Tammy Patrick) and thanks to the Democracy Fund for its support of BPC’s election work.
Vote by mail may be changing how we vote, but changes at the USPS are changing how we vote by mail; fortunately, BPC is on top of it now and going forward.
Stay tuned …