By Stephanie Warsmith – November 20, 2015
The U.S. Postal Service will develop a policy on postmarking absentee ballots in light of concerns raised this week by Summit County elections officials about nearly 900 ballots discounted because they lacked postmarks.
“We will be talking to the Ohio Secretary of State to reach a mutual understanding of acceptable postmarks for absentee ballots and develop a uniform policy addressing all concerns to help prevent this from happening again,” David Van Allen, a postal spokesman, said Thursday in a written statement.
Six postal officials, including U.S. Deputy Postmaster General Ronald Stroman, traveled to Akron Thursday to meet with Summit County Board of Elections officials to discuss the board’s concerns. This followed a decision by the board Wednesday to hold a hearing Dec. 28 to probe the postmark problem after the board discounted 861 late absentee ballots from the Nov. 3 election that lacked postmarks. The board plans to subpoena the postmaster generals from Akron and Cleveland to appear at the hearing.
State officials weighed in on the controversy Thursday, with the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus and state Rep. Emilia Sykes, D-Akron, issuing a statement asking Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted to launch an investigation.
“When a voter places their absentee ballot in the mail, they should be able to have confidence that their vote will be counted, not tossed out through no fault of their own,” Sykes said in the statement. “Hundreds of Summit County voters — and likely even more across the state — have been disenfranchised this election, and they deserve answers.”
Joshua Eck, a spokesman for Husted, said Husted spoke by phone with Stroman on Thursday and is looking into the issue.
“We’re trying to figure out all of the facts — what is required by the post office and how does that compare to our laws, what is the scenario in Summit County,” Eck said. “Once we have that information, there might be action that needs to be taken. I don’t know what that will be.”
Under state law, elections boards may count absentee ballots that are postmarked by the day before the election that arrive within 10 days of the election. The boards rely on postmarks on the envelopes to show whether the ballots make it to them in time.
Summit County elections officials think the postmark problem has been exacerbated by the closure of Akron’s mail processing center in April, which forced mail sent locally to go to Cleveland to be processed before being returned to the elections board in Akron. The postal service closed this and other processing centers because of financial concerns.
The number of late absentee ballots without postmarks in Summit County increased substantially in this year’s primaries and general election, the first elections since the processing center closed. Summit County elections board members are concerned the problem could be exasperated during next year’s presidential election when turnout is historically higher.
Postal officials told Summit County elections board leaders Thursday that the post office doesn’t affix a traditional postmark to all mail. They said postmarks aren’t put on mail, for example, that has a postal label printed from the Internet or from a kiosk in a post office lobby or by a postal counter clerk, said Joe Masich, the director of the Summit County board.
The lack of a postmark on an absentee ballot doesn’t matter prior to Election Day because the postmark-deadline doesn’t apply and elections officials know these ballots are timely. For ballots received after the election, though, a directive from Husted to elections boards requires election officials to rely on traditional postmarks, Masich said.
“Maybe things need tweaked,” Masich said. “It certainly needs fixed one way or another.”
Summit board employees go to the post office to pick up absentee ballots daily during the early voting period, and sometimes more often as the elections draw nearer.
Eck said his office doesn’t have numbers on how many late absentee ballots were thrown out statewide or in each county because of the lack of a postmark. He said these are figures the boards keep, but don’t report to the state.
Eck pointed out that Husted was among the elected officials who spoke out against the postal service’s plans to close mail distribution centers. He sent a letter to the U.S. Postmaster General in Feburary 2012 raising concerns that the planned closures could interfere with the distribution of ballots.
“Drastic changes in how mail is processed could have unintended consequences, specifically when it comes to how Ohio voters’ absentee ballots are handled,” Husted said. “It is my responsibility as Ohio’s Chief Elections Official to ensure that regardless of the method by which a qualified elector chooses to cast a ballot, their vote is counted without incident.”
Now that the postmark-issue has come to light, Sykes is hoping it will be addressed before the presidential election to avoid a more wide-spread problem.
“We do not want to be the laughingstock,” she said. “It’s better to be proactive than to be fighting this out in court in late 2016.”