View Mobile Site

Postal cuts could force change in California voting by mail & delay results by days or weeks

Text Size: Small Large Medium
POSTED March 13, 2012 7:56 p.m.

SACRAMENTO (AP) — California lawmakers and election officials worried about the effect of postal closures on elections are considering extending the voting period for mail-in-ballots, a move that could delay results by days or even weeks.

Election officials are concerned that longer delivery times will disenfranchise tens of thousands of absentee voters after the U.S. Postal Service begins closing post offices and mail distribution centers this summer.

During a joint legislative hearing Tuesday, lawmakers, county registrars and Secretary of State Debra Bowen discussed the possibility of changing California election law so ballots must be merely postmarked by Election Day. Currently, they must be in the hands of election workers by the time polls close to be counted.

Bowen acknowledged the change could mean the end of same-night election results, with nearly half the California electorate voting absentee.

"You hate to make changes with a gun to your head," she said.

About 40 percent of California voters are registered for permanent absentee ballots, compared with 5 percent in 2000. Nearly 6 million residents voted by mail in 2008, the last presidential election.

Bowen has said that mailed ballots took from five to seven days to arrive at county election offices during last year's local elections in areas that lost distribution centers, instead of the normal one to three days.

Democratic Sen. Lou Correa of Anaheim said he is pushing through a bill on an urgency basis that would allow ballots to be postmarked on Election Day. A bill he introduced last year would have brought California in line with the 10 other states that do that, but it died in the Senate.

"Last year, we didn't have the issue of the postal distribution centers closing. This year we do," he said. "We need to do everything in our power to make sure these votes are counted."

The Postal Service recently announced that it is moving ahead with plans to close at least 223 processing centers, including 14 in California, to cut costs.

Bowen sent a letter last month to the U.S. postmaster general urging a halt to the closures until after the November election. Elections officials in several states, including Ohio, Arizona and Oregon, have since raised concerns about mail-in voting in their state.

On Tuesday, Bowen reiterated her concern that the closures "could be a true disaster for our democracy" and said she was open to the possibility of extending the voting period.

Bowen also proposed changing election law to allow registrars to collect ballots pertaining to other counties from nearby distribution centers. Currently, ballots must be received by election workers in their county of origin in order to count.

Democratic Rep. John Garamendi said he would also like the Postal Service to delay the closures, after the agency agreed last year to a five-month moratorium that ends in mid-May.

According to the Postal Service, the earliest a mail processing center could close would be August, partly because the mail agency must work to reassign employees. The agency would then halt the process in September at the end of the month to minimize disruptions ahead of the general election.

The Postal Service declined to participate in the meeting, drawing criticism from Correa and Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, who presided over the joint hearing of the Senate Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments and the Assembly Committee on Elections and Redistricting.

Postal Service spokesman James Widgel said that the agency reached out to both lawmakers, and continues to maintain a strong relationship with local registrars.

"The Postal Service responded directly to the chairs of the State Senate and Assembly committees and offered to send a statement for the record, providing additional information about our planned operational changes and our efforts to facilitate timely delivery of election-related mail," Widgel said in an email.

Several county registrars said at Tuesday's hearing that Postal Service representatives were trying to work with them, but could not provide basic information, including a schedule of planned closures.

At the hearing, Garamendi said the Postal Service was curtailing democracy to save money and compared the planned closures to controversial photo ID requirements for voters.

He added that the closures could have consequences for campaign material as well as mail-in-ballots.

"These are major questions that are going to cause significant angst and repositioning in every campaign at every level," he said. "It's not just about the ballots; it's about the very process of the election itself."

Commenting is not available.

Commenting not available.

Please wait ...