Embattled Postal Service Faces Challenge On Election Day

From Barrow, Alaska, to Key West, Fla., the mail always gets through. But in the days leading up to Election Day, mailed ballots absolutely must get through, or the nation's electoral process would be thrown into havoc.

In states that rely largely or entirely on vote-by-mail or absentee ballots, a pre-Nov. 6 disruption of mail delivery caused by the U.S. Postal Service’s fiscal crisis would be a fiasco for voters and election officials.

With partisan battles already under way on voter eligibility across the nation over fears of voter fraud and charges of vote suppression, the last thing the upcoming election needs is another procedural snafu.

Washington and Oregon voters cast their ballots entirely by mail or at local drop boxes, and in California’s June primary, nearly two out of three voters cast their ballots by mail. Even in states where voters still show up in person to vote at their local precinct, absentee voting by mail is common.

In order for the election to take place, the mail must get delivered promptly – no matter how dire the Postal Service’s fiscal crisis is – and it’s dire indeed. In the second quarter of its fiscal year (January to March) the Postal Service lost $3.2 billion. Congressional postal experts will be scrutinizing its third-quarter financial statement on Aug. 9 to see if the distress has worsened. While the Senate has passed a reform bill to keep the Postal Service afloat, the House hasn’t yet acted.

Urging the House to move, one of the Senate reform leaders, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said Wednesday “Only one week from now, the Postal Service will default on a $5.5 billion payment to Treasury – further eroding the confidence of the millions of customers and businesses” that rely on mail to get delivered.

USPS spokesman David Partenheimer said Thursday, “Default on the retiree health benefits prepayment due August 1 will have no effect on mail operations, including election mail. The Postal Service will continue to meet its obligation to provide universal service to the American people. Our priority is to continue to pay employees and suppliers on a timely basis and avoid any disruption in mail processing or delivery.”

While carrying out a plan to shrink its workforce by 13,000 and shut down some processing facilities, the Postal Service did say in May that "Due to the volume of high-priority mail predicted for the election and holiday mailing seasons, no consolidating activities will be conducted from September through December of 2012." Partenheimer confirmed Thursday this is still the case.

He said the Postal Service will continue to provide information on its consolidations to election officials and "explain why they will not adversely affect delivery of election-related mail." He added that the Postal Service has created an Election Mail Task Force that will facilitate the timely processing and delivery of election mail.

Nonetheless, state election officials are keeping a wary eye on the Postal Service’s fiscal crisis.

Dave Ammons, a spokesman for Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed, said Thursday, "We, like Oregon, vote by mail, so naturally we are watching the (Postal Service) situation closely, and with some natural anxiety. We have been part of a national group of election administrators who have been in close contact. USPS has assured us that they will continue to give a very high priority to ballots sent to and fro. "

In Washington there are 3.7 million registered voters, and ballots go in the mail by no later than Oct. 19 and must be postmarked by Election Day in order to be counted.

The message from election officials: Do not wait until Election Day; mail your ballot as early as possible, just in case there is any slowing of mail delivery. Or voters can drop their ballots at one of the county-operated drop boxes; there are at least two drop locations in each of the state’s 39 counties.

In Oregon voters must get their completed ballots back to the local election officials by Election Day.

Even if the Postal Service crisis has no impact on this year’s balloting, shrinkage of the Postal Service raises longer-term questions of how smoothly and how confidently voters might be able to move in larger numbers to voting by mail. No mail delivery could mean no voting.

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