Increase in mail-in ballots pose no issues for election officials, USPS

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Election 2020 Coverage
Page Valley News has complete coverage of the local elections.

By Randy Arrington

LURAY, Sept. 4 — In two weeks, the 2020 election officially kicks off in Page County when early voting gets underway with walk-up balloting at the registrar’s office beginning Friday, Sept. 18.

Registered voters may cast their ballots at the registrar’s office just “like a precinct on Election Day,” according to Page County Registrar Carol Gaunt, through Saturday, Oct. 31.

As of last week, about 750 requests for early voting by mail had been received by the county registrar, and Gaunt says they started coming in at the end of January.

“We are way ahead,” she said of early voting requests last week. “Typically we do around 1,100 for this type of [presidential] election, and we still have September and October to go. So, we’ll have a big number this time.”

No witness signature is required for mail-in voting, including absentee ballots. The Republican primary in June was the first time that requirement had been waived, and the waiver carries over to this fall’s general election. This was a direct effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Gaunt.

However, she doesn’t foresee any problems due to an influx of mail-in ballots, and the registrar doesn’t think voters should fear the process.

“I don’t have any reason to think it’s unsafe,” Gaunt said. “My No.1 thing is, once you get your ballot completed, get it back in the mail and do not wait.”

The U.S. Postal Service distributed an extensive 2020 Official Election Mail Kit (Kit 600) to 11,500 election officials in March. Postal officials recently followed up that effort with “a letter to local and state election officials and state party officials around the country that highlights key aspects of Election Mail delivery processes — and ways to help educate the public on what to expect when using the mail to vote,” Fred Sauter, at USPS Corporate Communications in Baltimore, stated in a response to PVN.

“The Postal Service is committed to delivering Election Mail in a timely manner. We employ a robust and proven process to ensure proper handling of all Election Mail, including ballots. This includes close coordination and partnerships with election officials at the local and state levels,” Sauter continued in his statement. “As we anticipate that many voters may choose to use the mail to participate in the upcoming elections due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are conducting and will continue to proactively conduct outreach with state and local election officials and Secretaries of State so that they can make informed decisions and educate the public about what they can expect when using the mail to vote. As part of these outreach efforts, we will discuss our delivery processes and will consult with election officials about how they can design their mailings in a manner that comports with postal regulations, improves mail piece visibility, and ensures efficient and cost-effective processing and delivery.”

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has reversed his earlier course on the removal of postal boxes, sorting machines and other equipment and suspended such activity until after the Nov. 3 election. DeJoy stated during a congressional hearing that the removal of such items had been previously planned and approved prior to his arrival as part of cost-cutting measures due to shrinking letter delivery volume.

While four levels of USPS officials declined an interview with PVN, they did address the issue that has caught national attention in their written response.

“The Postal Service reviews collection box density every year on a routine basis to identify redundant/seldom used collection boxes as First-Class Mail volume continues to decline,” Sauter said in his statement. “Based on the density testing, boxes are identified for potential removal and notices are placed on boxes to give customers an opportunity to comment before the removal decision is made. This process is one of the many ways the Postal Service makes adjustments to our infrastructure to match our resources to declining mail volumes. Given the recent customer concerns the Postal Service will postpone removing boxes for a period of 90 days while we evaluate our customers’ concerns.”

However, if volume now increases due to COVID-19 and its effects on the 2020 election with regard to mail-in ballots, the postal system says they are more than prepared for the influx.

“…the Postal Service’s financial condition is not going to impact our ability to process and deliver election and political mail. The Postal Service has ample capacity to adjust our nationwide processing and delivery network to meet projected Election and Political Mail volume, including any additional volume that may result as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sauter stated in his response to Page Valley News

“Our network is designed to handle increases in volume and deliver that mail in a timely manner. Additionally, the Postal Service has long-standing processes to align workforce to workload, including contingencies to respond to events like the COVID-19 pandemic,” he continued. “The Postal Service maintains steady communications with mailers during events that require specific responses and advises residential customers and business mailers with regard to postal facility disruptions that may impact delivery in an affected area via its USPS Service Alerts webpage at: https://about.usps.com/newsroom/service-alerts/.”

W&L Mail Service Inc. has transported Page County’s bulk mail from local post offices to sorting hubs in places like Richmond since 2012. Chief Operations Officer Rick Jubb says any increase in volume created by mail-in ballots can be easily absorbed.

“Given our experience in previous elections, no additional transportation will be needed; but if it is, we would have capacity to give it,” Jubb said. 

W&L trucks haul mail along routes from Long Island, N.Y. to Tampa, Fla., and the business founded in 1982 says their contract with USPS allows for adjustments to meet increased volumes and perform additional services, if needed.

“There is more than enough capacity in the transportation network to handle it,” Jubb said of the upcoming election and the wave of mail-in ballots that may come with it.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic that hangs over this year’s election, the Page County registrar does not think it will be that much out of the ordinary.

“Nothing different, other than we are printing new envelopes and they will be color-coded… it’s supposed to make it easier sorting them and the ballots coming back to us are also color-coded… more of a unifying look to our election mailings,” Gaunt said.

Drop boxes are not planned for mail-in ballots in Page County. According to Gaunt, using such boxes during elections is currently against the state code. The Virginia Board of Elections is currently working with the General Assembly to relax the restrictions on the use of drop boxes and leave the decision up to local electoral boards and registrars.

“We are still waiting on Richmond to hear if that will be allowed,” Gaunt said last week.

The cost to obtain, distribute and maintain drop boxes for the election would rest with the county; however, federal CARES Act monies could provide funding because of the impact of COVID-19 on the election process. Locally, the Page County’s registrar office has received $54,791 in CARES Act funding to make the polls, equipment and the office safe for voters and visitors.

The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Friday, Oct. 23 — the registrar must receive the request by that day. Those ballots are due by Election Day; however, new code states as long as they are postmarked by Election Day and received in the registrar’s office by noon on the third day following the election — Friday, Nov. 6 — then they can still be counted.

This process and code applies to any mail-in ballots, absentee or otherwise. However, USPS advises all voters who choose the mail-in method to err on the side of caution and send ballots back early.

“In order to allow sufficient time for voters to receive, complete and return ballots via the mail, and to facilitate timely receipt of completed ballots by election officials, the Postal Service strongly recommends that jurisdictions immediately communicate and advise voters to request ballots at the earliest point allowable, but no later than 15 days prior to the election date,” a statement from Corporate Communications of USPS reads. “The Postal Service recommends that domestic, non-military voters mail their ballots at least one week prior to their state’s due date to allow for timely receipt by election officials.”

“In addition, we will be sending a letter in the near term to election officials in states that have deadlines for requesting and casting mail-in ballots that under our reading of their election laws appear to be incongruous with the Postal Service’s delivery standards.”

While the local registrar has not sent out any recent mailings beyond address changes and new voter registration cards — Gaunt said that the election mailings received by county residents in recent weeks from a voter participation group called the “Center For Voter Information” were legitimate.

“It seemed to create a feeling of… a lot seemed not to trust it,” she said. “There is nothing illegal or wrong about it, but we still had a lot of people return theirs in their own envelope.”

Gaunt says sending in ballots by mail early is helpful to everyone in the process, even the voter. At the end of July, the registrar received two ballots from residents trying to cast votes in the June primary.

“They told us  it had been under the desk calendar, and they just forgot about it and decided to send it in anyway,” Gaunt said. “That’s why I say… my No.1 thing is, once you get your ballot completed, get it back in the mail and do not wait.”

The last day to register to vote in the Nov. 3 general election is Tuesday, Oct. 13. It is also the last day to update your name or address so there is no confusion at the polls on Election Day.

As of last week, there were 16,047 registered voters in Page County. That figure is up 2.2 percent (344 voters) from Oct. 28, 2019, when 15,703 voters were registered in Page County just prior to the last election.

“I think it’s interesting how many people will only vote in a presidential election,” Gaunt said.

While voter turnout is expected to be high this fall, if you plan to vote in person on Nov. 3, make sure you wear a mask and bring your ID.

Finding out who wins the election — particularly the presidential race — may take several days, or potentially weeks, to sort through mail-in voting and provisional ballots.

“Technically, we can’t have [an official] decision now until the third day after the election (Friday, Nov. 6) because they have until then… we have to wait on mail-in and provisional ballots,” Gaunt said.

Provisional ballots are cast, but the voter may have an issue with their name, address, ID or they may not be officially registered to vote (and thought they were) so their vote may not count.

“In November elections, we generally will have a couple,” the Page registrar said. “The No.1 thing is they thought they registered at DMV” and for some reason they are not registered.

But for those who head to one of five polling locations in Page County on Nov. 3, the registrar advises: “Wear a mask, bring your ID and be patient.”

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The U.S. Postal Service also offered the following information:

The Postal Service has continued and will continue to serve its customers during the COVID-19 pandemic through the delivery of not only Election Mail, but also medicine, essential consumer staples, benefit checks, and important information. For information about how the Postal Service is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, please see: https://about.usps.com/newsroom/covid-19/.   

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