Postal Service cuts could interfere with elections, delay ballots

Laura Phelps | Contributor

WASHINGTON – With Congress debating plans to shut down post offices and possibly eliminate Saturday mail delivery, some election officials are worried that bringing the U.S. Postal Service out of the red could harm election procedures — perhaps even in time for the November 2012 presidential election.

In November the Postal Service announced it lost $5.1 billion in fiscal 2011, not including the mandated $5.5 billion owed to the federal government to prefund retiree health benefit payments.

For the service to return to profitability, it must cut $20 billion by 2015.

Senate legislation would protect Saturday service for the next two years, but a House bill would permit a reduction to five-day-per-week mail delivery six months after enactment. The Postal Service has said it intends to cut Saturday service unless Congress requires it to continue.

Steve Monteith, the Postal Service’s manager of transaction correspondence, said taking away Saturday delivery or shutting post office doors could force election officials to send ballots out a day earlier to make sure they arrive on time.

California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, co-sponsored the House bill. The service’s financial losses, he said, put elections at risk.

“Fundamental reforms are needed to protect the financial viability of the United States Postal Service, including its services that are integral to voting,” Issa said.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe is unenthusiastic about the legislative plans currently pending. “Unfortunately, both bills have elements that delay tough decisions and impose greater constraints on our business model,” he said during a National Press Club luncheon on Nov. 21.

The Postal Service estimates that ending Saturday mail delivery would save about $3 billion annually, but its oversight agency, the Postal Regulatory Commission, puts the figure at only $1.7 billion. And the commission predicted the full savings would not be realized until the third year of cutbacks.

Vote-my-mail hit hardest

Postal Regulatory Commission chairman Ruth Goldway said the loss of Saturday mail delivery, and slower mail processing times, could be felt most in states that permit voting by mail, including many in the Western U.S.

The states of Washington and Oregon cast ballots entirely by mail, and more than 50 percent of California residents vote by mail, she said.

Goldway fears that if post offices are shut down in rural areas, fewer people may choose to vote at all.

Oregon elections officials generally mail ballots two weeks before voting deadlines, she noted, but they are now considering an earlier start. They may also introduce more approved sites where voters can drop off their ballots in person.

Washington’s Sheryl Moss, a manager in the elections division at the Secretary of State’s office, said the deadline for ballots will probably have to be earlier because the mail will take longer to deliver in areas where post offices are shut down. The state may also find its election processing capabilities reduced to just two or three locations.

“If they [voters] go to a drop box at 4:00 p.m., and miss the mail pick-up, they may need to travel to a big city to have their votes counted, which would be a big inconvenience,” Moss said.

She said the Postal Service has assured her that ballots postmarked on Election Day will make it back to the Secretary of State in time for tallying. Still, she’s not convinced.

“I’m still kind of in a wait-and-see mode on that one,” Moss said.

Each county in the state of Washington must have at least two locations where people can drop off their ballots without any postage.

Goldway did not address the potential impact of slower mail delivery on absentee ballots.

Cutting Saturday service

Doug Lewis, executive director of the National Association of Elections Officials, said although voters who wait until the last minute to mail their ballots are always a concern, any received before the polls close on Election Day must be counted.

Moving to a five-day delivery system would have little impact on mail-in voting, Lewis said. He thinks Monday delivery will be enough, and election officials will still be able to go to distribution sites to collect ballot boxes when polls close.

“Look, the reality is that the Postal Service has to find a way to survive,” Lewis said, “and as far as elections go, we want it to be able to survive because it offers a valuable service to us.”

“Election Class” mail

As the presidential election approaches, Lewis said his organization is eager to see the Postal Service introduce a special Election Class postage rate to ensure all ballots are treated like First Class mail.

The Government Accountability Office has reported that Election Class mail would offer a flat rate for mail up to 3.3 ounces. It would also include First Class features like forwarding and return service.

Monteith said the Postal Service’s senior management is still considering the new rate proposal, and that it would need approval by the service’s board of governors and by the postal commission.

Although the Postal Service will not have Election Class mail ready for the spring primaries, Monteith said there is still enough time to implement it before the General Election in November.

“In terms of election-related mail, as we are with everything, we’re committed to getting it delivered,” he said. “That part of it does not change, regardless of if a plant that is there today is not there tomorrow.”

Congressional quarrels

If a legislative fix doesn’t arrive in time, USPS will run out of cash next year, officials said.

“If passed today, either bill would provide at best one year of profitability, and at least a decade of steep losses,” Postmaster General Donahoe warned. “However, by taking the best of both the House and Senate approaches, Congress can provide the Postal Service with the legal framework and the business model it needs.”

The Postal Service, which does not receive tax dollars for operation, wants the statutory flexibility to decide when mail is delivered, to price its own products, to control its healthcare and retirement costs, and to make significant changes to its network.

Spokesman David Partenheimer said the service’s immediate concern is whether Congress will pass another continuing resolution to delay the $5.5 billion prefunded retiree health benefits payment that is due Dec. 16.

“As before, we still don’t have the money to make this payment,” he cautioned in an email to TheDC. “So if Congress does not act before then — by passing legislation or issuing another Continuing Resolution — we will default on that payment.”

“We were hoping that comprehensive, longer term legislation would have passed by now.”

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