OKLAHOMA CITY – State election laws governing absentee ballots are “incompatible” with U.S. Postal Service delivery schedules, current and former USPS executives have warned in documents submitted in a lawsuit filed in Tulsa federal district court against the State Election Board and its chief executive officer.
The previous second highest-ranking official in the U.S. Postal Service expressed “great concern” that large numbers of Oklahomans who vote by mail in the Nov. 3 general election “will be disenfranchised” by the statutory requirement that absentee ballots must be received at a county election board by 7 p.m. Election Day or they won’t be counted.
Voting by mail has increased significantly in elections conducted to date this year, records show. “[I]t is highly probable that this shift toward voters casting ballots by mail will be even more pronounced in the ... General Election,” said Ronald Stroman of Washington, D.C., deputy postmaster general of the USPS for nine years, from 2011 to June 1 this year.
“This surge in voting by mail imposes unprecedented strains on state election systems, most of which are not designed for the expected volume of mail ballots,” Stroman said. The U.S. Postal Service “has never before been required to provide mail service to support elections in which large numbers of voters – the majority of voters in some states – will vote by mail,” he added.
Myriad problems described in a report prepared by the Office of the Inspector General “reflect longstanding vote-by-mail problems and the extraordinary strains that the surge in voting by mail have placed on election officials and the USPS,” Stroman wrote. Oklahoma is one of several states that has voting deadlines which are “incompatible with USPS delivery times” and thus “create a very high risk” of disenfranchising a large number of voters, he said.
A specific problem with Oklahoma’s “electoral scheme” is that voters can request an absentee ballot up to 5 p.m. on the Tuesday prior to an election.
Even under the best of circumstances, Stroman wrote, “it will take more than a week, on average, for an absentee ballot to be mailed by an election official, delivered to the voter by the USPS, completed by the voter, and delivered by the USPS ... back to an election office.” Consequently, Oklahoma voters who request absentee ballots within 7 to 10 days of an election “are at very high risk of not having their ballots returned in time to be counted.” State law requires all ballots to arrive at election offices by no later than 7 p.m. on Election Day.
In a letter dated July 29, Thomas J. Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president of the USPS, notified Paul Ziriax, Secretary of the State Election Board, that Oklahoma’s election laws are “incompatible with USPS mail delivery service standards...”
Voters must use first-class mail to mail their ballots and ballot requests, but state/ local election officials may generally use either first-class mail or marketing mail to deliver blank ballots to voters, Marshall related.
Specific transit times for either class of mail cannot be guaranteed and depends on factors such as given mail piece’s place or origin and destination, he noted. Even so, he wrote, most domestic firstclass mail is delivered 2-5 days after it is received by the Postal Service, and most domestic marketing mail is delivered 3-10 days after it is received.
However, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose complained in a letter to his state’s congressional delegation that, “Instead of first- class mail taking 1-3 days for delivery, we have heard wide reports of it taking as long as 7-9 days.”
USPS EXEC ADVISES TWO-WEEK CUSHION
In his July 29 letter, Marshall informed Ziriax that in circumstances where a voter will receive and send a ballot by mail, the voter should submit his/her ballot request early enough “so that it is received by their election officials at least 15 days before Election Day, at a minimum, and preferably long before that time.”
Since a completed ballot must be received by Election Day in order to be counted, “[W]e recommend ... that voters who choose to mail their ballots do so no later than ... October 27,” Marshall advised.
USPS timetables “demonstrate that there is an irreconcilable conflict with the Oklahoma law that allows voters to request absentee ballots up to a week before Election Day,” wrote Dr. Marc Meredith, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania who has a courtesy appointment in the Business Economic group at the Wharton School of Business.
The Postal Service has an “election mail” target of 96% on-time delivery, Stroman said. However, “even if this target is achieved, 4% of mailed ballots – which rep- resent thousands of ballots in the November election – will be at high risk of untimely delivery.”
During the statewide primary on June 30, nearly 420 absentee ballots were returned to the senders as undelivered and 4,433 were rejected for reasons such as affidavit incomplete, not attested, not returned, not no- tarized or not witnessed.
In addition, 2,385 mail-in ballots were received after the June 30 statewide prima- ry, too late to be counted, the State Election Board reported. Most of those were delivered within three days after the election, records show.
The Postal Service has experienced “a dramatic decline” in mail volume over the last decade, Stroman wrote. And since the middle of March, because of COVID-19, the USPS “has seen about a 25% decline in mail volume over the same period as last year, a steeper decline than in recent years.”
In response, “it appears the USPS has chosen to cut costs by ending employee overtime and requiring all trucks to leave plants on time, regardless of whether all mail is loaded onto the trucks,” Stroman said. “This new policy is already delaying mail delivery and will very likely delay the delivery of absentee ballots.”
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy “established protocols that prioritize reducing labor costs, even if they reduce the timely delivery of letters and parcels,” Meredith wrote in support of the lawsuit filed May 18 by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the state Democratic Party against Ziriax and the State Election Board.
In a message to USPS employees, DeJoy “acknowledged that his transformative initiative of operational and organization changes had unintended consequences that impacted overall service levels.”