Absentee voters lose convenient access
Postal Service prohibits absentee ballot applications in lobbies
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Absentee ballot applications are no longer available at local post offices due to a “directive” from the U.S. Postal Service prohibiting the presence of the election forms in post office lobbies.
This change in access to voter materials caught Shelter Island postal workers, the Suffolk County Board of Elections and the League of Women Voters by surprise.
Voters calling the county Board of Elections are directed to go to their local post office as the first location listed for absentee ballot applications and other voter forms. Tom Noble, an assistant to Republican Elections Commissioner Cathy Richter Geier, confirmed that numerous application forms were sent to local post offices this year as they have been for years — the Shelter Island Post Office in the Center among them. A Shelter Island patron asking for an absentee ballot application today would be directed to the library or Town Hall despite the fact that the post office ordered the forms.
Mr. Noble couldn't say exactly how many of the applications were sent to post offices in Suffolk. “We don't track the number of forms going out,” he said. And he didn't know the precise date that the Board of Elections learned of the prohibition. But a Postal Service reminder of acceptable and prohibited election activities, dated August 22 and distributed to post offices nationwide, was faxed to the board from the Melville Post Office on September 12. It read: “The presence of the following items and activities is prohibited ... Applications for absentee ballots (Voting by Mail).” The other items prohibited by the Postal Service are ballot boxes, political campaign materials, political signs, flyers and active campaigning.
Voter registration forms are “optional,” as stated by the Postal Service in the reminder. But Mr. Noble said that New York State law requires that voter registration forms be displayed at post offices.
“It had been standard procedure to offer and send absentee voter materials” to post offices in Suffolk County, Mr. Noble commented. “We had no clue as to why the Post Office decided to do this.”
When asked about the change in absentee ballot application availability, Tom Gaynor, a Postal Service Communications Program Specialist for the Long Island and Westchester district, said, “We have a directive” from the Retail Department in Washington D.C. “I had it earlier, in May of this year” that local post offices must comply with a prohibition against providing absentee ballot applications in post office lobbies.
Mr. Gaynor explained that the prohibition is part of a system-wide effort. “They're standardizing what goes on display in post office lobbies.” The Postal Service implemented what it called a “Retail Standardization” process in 2005. The goal — to make U.S. Post Offices more uniform, efficient and profitable. Patrons started noticing the effects of “Retail Standardization” in 2007, as seen in an Associated Press story out of Fort Worth, Texas in March of that year; it bore the headline “Postal Service fixes long waits by removing clocks.”
According to Mr. Gaynor, the Retail Department wants post office materials “to be postal information” although voter registration forms and passport materials are allowed.
Details about the Postal Service decision to prohibit absentee ballot applications and its date of origin remain sketchy. But Mr. Gaynor, a 25-year veteran of the Postal Service, said, “Indications are that this is the first year” absentee ballots are being expressly prohibited.
Congressman Tim Bishop and Senator Chuck Schumer are looking into the change in voter access. Senator Schumer issued the following statement: “Nothing in a democracy is more important than encouraging its citizens to vote. We are looking into this situation to make sure that the USPS is living up to all requirements to provide information to prospective voters.”
While post offices have traditionally provided voter information, federal law does not require them to provide absentee forms. State laws, in general, dictate the absentee ballot application process.
Congressman Bishop's office is also investigating the prohibition. “With the high level of public interest in this year's historic election, it is important to make voting as accessible as possible. I will work to ensure that every vote is counted and that there is no voter suppression,” Mr. Bishop said.
The League of Women Voters of Shelter Island issued a press release last week informing voters of deadlines and the availability of absentee forms at post offices. After hearing of the absentee application prohibition, local League President Cathy Kenny commented, “I don't know what possible reason they could give that would justify it. The timing is certainly poor even if they could justify it.” She said that league volunteers will distribute absentee ballot applications during voter registration events.
The extent and effect of this change in voter access is not yet known. Some post offices never offered absentee ballot applications. On Shelter Island, the post office, library and Town Hall are within yards of one another. But for many voters nationwide, picking up forms at a local post office is more convenient than a visit to city hall or the library.
This story emerged as the Associated Press reported that early voting, including absentee voting, may account for as much as one-third of the electorate in the November 4 presidential race. That's up from 16 percent in 2000 and 22 percent in 2004. The state of Oregon votes entirely by mail and other states are increasing mail-in voting options.
During the last two town elections on Shelter Island more than 200 absentee ballots were cast after second home-owners were encouraged to vote on Shelter Island.
In August, the AP also reported that the U.S. Postal Service had a net loss of $1.1 billion in the third quarter of the fiscal year, a loss attributed to reduced mail volume and increased transportation costs.
While the Postal Service is enforcing an absentee application prohibition, postal workers are pushing for federal legislation to increase voting by mail.
NAPUS, the National Association of Postmasters of the United States, supports two bills pending in Congress. One would establish grants to promote mail-in voting and the other would permit eligible voters to cast a separate mail-in ballot for federal elections. “NAPUS believes that vote-by-mail offers America a convenient, secure and inexpensive way of increasing electoral participation,” according to the group's 2008 legislative agenda.
Voting by mail also brings in revenue to the Postal Service, something the Retail Standardization effort intended to do despite the ban on absentee applications.
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