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Postal Service Schedules and Election Timelines: A Disconnect?

By Wendy Underhill | Aug. 25, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy faced tough questions in congressional hearings on the timing of his cost-cutting changes to U.S. mail service. His responses before a Senate committee on Friday last week and a House committee on Monday may leave state lawmakers considering whether to change statutory deadlines for requesting and returning mail-in ballots.

This summer’s operational changes included limiting overtime pay, removing some blue postboxes and deactivating mail-sorting machines. After much public furor, DeJoy froze the changes on Aug. 18 until after the November election.

The controversy was rooted in concerns about how the changes might affect mail delivery, particularly for absentee ballots given that mail voting has skyrocketed this year due to the pandemic. All 50 states rely on the U.S. Postal Service for the delivery of absentee ballots.

The Postal Service said in a letter to 46 states on July 29 that the trouble is that “certain deadlines for requesting and casting mail-in ballots are incongruous with the Postal Service’s delivery standards.”

That letter was a follow-up to an open letter on May 29 saying essentially the same thing, that “the Postal Service cannot guarantee a specific delivery date or alter standards to comport with individual state election laws.” The July letter was personalized for each state and explained why each state’s final date for requesting an absentee ballot would not leave enough time to get ballots to the voters, never mind getting them back again to be counted. States’ deadlines range from the day before the election in Connecticut to 11 days before the election in Arizona. See Applying for an Absentee Ballot for all states’ deadlines.

The Postal Service has been cutting back for most of this decade through a policy of “network rationalization,” which calls for relaxing delivery standards. In other words, the disconnect between postal deliveries and state laws is not new this year. State deadlines, often written decades ago, don’t leave time to get ballots to and from voters, concluded the Bipartisan Policy Center in its 2016 report “The New Realities of Voting by Mail in 2016.”

The Postal Service offers two main thoughts for states. Both are well within states’ purview—and nearly impossible to adopt and implement before November’s election. First, the service suggests that election officials could send ballots to voters with first-class postage, thus “buying” faster service. That might make sense in times of plenty—but election officials never seem to be in times of plenty. The budgetary constraints of a COVID-19-induced recession only exacerbate the problem.

The second is for states to review their deadlines in relation to Postal Service guidelines. The service was careful to say it is “not recommending that such laws be changed to accommodate the Postal Service’s delivery standards,” but the message is obvious: Since the post office isn’t going to get any faster anytime soon, states might want to push their deadlines for requesting ballots further back from Election Day. At the very least, they’ll need to work extra hard to educate voters to vote early and drop off their ballots at an election office or a ballot drop box if available. (That saves the voter 55 cents and reduces postal revenues by the same amount.)

During testimony before the House Oversight Committee hearing Monday, DeJoy said voters should mail back their ballots at least seven days before the election.

The mismatch between Postal Service policy and state laws is only one of several timeline snags relating to absentee/mail voting. Learn more at NCSL’s online event Timing Is Everything: Absentee Ballot Processing on Aug. 26, 2 p.m. ET/ 1 p.m. CT/ noon MT/ 11 a.m. PT.

Wendy Underhill is the director of NCSL's Elections and Redistricting Program.

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