(No) Postage Due: Mail Ballots Delivered – Even Without a Stamp


[Image via flickr user stampolina]

Voters across the nation are sending vote by mail ballots back to their local election offices, but sometimes they carry the voter’s choices – and not enough postage. Fortunately, that’s not an issue thanks to agreements between election offices and the Postal Service. The San Francisco Chronicle has more:

Democracy is never easy — or cheap. And that includes the act of mailing in a ballot, a messy collection of thick cards that are weighty on the issues and just as weighty on the postal scale.

One stamp or two? Or maybe three? Is the envelope regular-sized or oversize? Does that cost extra? How much?

And what happens if you leave off the stamp entirely and drop a completed ballot into the mailbox stark naked?

 The answer is — don’t worry. The mail will go through. All mailed ballots are delivered immediately to county registrars of voters, according to U.S. Postal Service spokesman Gus Ruiz, whether they are mailed with the proper amount of postage, or without any postage at all.

“It’s a little-known secret,” Ruiz said. “The Postal Service will always deliver a ballot, whether there is a stamp on it or not. We know how important this mail is, and we want to get it where it belongs as soon as possible.”

The issue is far from trivial. More citizens than ever are voting early. In 1964, 1 voter in 25 voted by mail in California. In the 2012 presidential election, 1 voter in 2 voted by mail. This election, registrars say, the percentage of mail-in voters can be expected to keep going up.

The need for postage varies across localities, but the USPS delivers ballots regardless of whether there’s enough:

Some voters don’t need to affix any stamps — five of the nine Bay Area counties, including San Francisco, now supply mail-in voters with postage-paid return envelopes. But elsewhere, mail-in voters are asked to slap a stamp on the envelope, and many of them drop their ballots into the mailbox with insufficient postage or no postage at all.

“We don’t eat it,” Ruiz said. “The registrars of voters have agreed to reimburse us after the election for insufficient postage.”

One place where mail voting isn’t free is Contra Costa County. According to the county’s clerk-recorder-registrar, Joseph Canciamilla, individual counties perform a random check of returned ballots for insufficient postage, then compare that result to the Postal Service’s random check. Together they agree on a postage-due sum that the county reimburses to the Postal Service.

In the 2012 election, Canciamilla said, about 1 ballot in 20 was mailed in without stamps or without enough stamps — a fairly constant ratio in the registrar of voters trade. Contra Costa County reimbursed the Postal Service about $5,000.

The size and weight of the ballot envelopes, and the policy of whether to provide a postage-paid envelope, vary by county. In San Francisco, because of the many city ballot propositions, this November’s returned-ballot envelope weighs 4 ounces and, depending on how the ballots are folded, may be too thick to qualify as a standard envelope. That means returning each San Francisco ballot costs the city and county up to $1.57 in postage.

Since 2003, San Francisco has sent out all ballots with postage-paid return envelopes, said John Arntz, the city’s elections director.

“We have such a large ballot with so many cards, and more than one stamp was required,” he said. “It was a hassle. Voters were complaining.”

It hasn’t always been this way – in fact, there was a time when insufficient postage meant votes didn’t even make it to the elections office, let alone get counted:

In decades past, Arntz said, the Postal Service did not always forward postage-due ballots to the registrar as it does now. The policy before 2003, he said, was for postage-due San Francisco ballots to be returned to the sender. That meant some people’s votes were never counted, which contributed to the city’s decision to pick up the tab.

This year, Arntz said, 310,000 out of the 506,000 registered voters have requested mail-in ballots, and the city’s postage bill is expected to be about $350,000…

In Alameda County, nearly 2 out of 3 ballots are sent out by mail in advance of election day, said Dwayna Gullatt, the assistant to the registrar. The county has mailed out 569,000 ballots.

Alameda County voters are asked to affix postage. One Berkeley voter who did found himself out $1.57, which included the premium he had to pay after discovering at the post office that the return ballot envelope was too thick with ballot cards to count as a regular envelope.

Sometimes, though, postage issues work in favor of the Postal Service – which helps offset issues everywhere else:

The postage-due issue cuts both ways, however. In Contra Costa County, the ballot envelope weighs slightly under 2 ounces and the postage required is 68 cents — 47 cents for the first ounce and 21 cents for the additional ounce. But since most people use only “forever” stamps that cost 47 cents each, most ballots are coming back with two stamps on them — which is too much postage, not insufficient postage.

And what happens to the 26-cent overpayment? The Postal Service, which runs an annual deficit of $5 billion, keeps it. Every quarter-and-penny helps.

This story is yet another example of how key players in the process work together to ensure that ballots get delivered and counted. PLEASE NOTE: One thing for which neither election offices nor the Postal Service can compensate is late-arriving ballots caused by voters waiting too long to mail them – so if you are holding a vote-by-mail ballot (voted or not) you you get it in the mail (preferably with the right postage) very soon.

11 days until Election Day – stay tuned …

44 Comments on "(No) Postage Due: Mail Ballots Delivered – Even Without a Stamp"

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  5. Interesting article. It’s a shame that more people didn’t take advantage of the free postage in the 2016 elections. The outcome may have been slightly better for the country… and the world. – Steve

  6. Wow! great article. As far i know it’s mandatory to use postage stamps. So then the outcome may have been even better for the country.

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  18. You’re absolutely spot on about mailing in ballots being painful to use. It shouldn’t be though.

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  27. George Reid | May 29, 2019 at 7:54 pm | Reply

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  32. Michael Wildner | March 19, 2020 at 6:08 pm | Reply

    With an easy google search for where to buy stamps you will easily find locations to mail your ballots in with the proper stamp to ensure delivery. Hope this helps

  33. Karen Taylor | March 19, 2020 at 6:10 pm | Reply

    Thank you for this great article bringing attention to mail in ballots. If you search for pleases near you to buy stamps you find locations to submit your ballots with stamps to ensure delivery.

  34. Bruce Overton | March 19, 2020 at 6:13 pm | Reply

    Stamps are essential for sending mail in ballots thank you for this article I hope all votes are counted and correct stamps are used

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