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As battle over mail-in voting heats up, Washington offers example of how to avoid the disaster many states fear

A voter casts her ballot on Oct. 22, 2018, at the downtown Spokane Public Library. In recent years, about half of Washington voters have cast their ballots in the state’s more than 400 drop boxes rather than using the U.S. Postal Service.  (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
A voter casts her ballot on Oct. 22, 2018, at the downtown Spokane Public Library. In recent years, about half of Washington voters have cast their ballots in the state’s more than 400 drop boxes rather than using the U.S. Postal Service. (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

With an unprecedented number of Americans expected to vote by mail this fall, sweeping changes at the U.S. Postal Service have raised concerns about voters receiving their ballots before Election Day, but current and former election officials say barriers to returning ballots on time could be a bigger problem.

“I’m less worried about ballots going out and more worried about ballots coming in,” said Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, a nonpartisan group that advocates for mail-in voting.

McReynolds, who ran elections in Denver for 13 years, said that as the nation adapts to voting during a pandemic, states that are scaling up mail-in voting for the first time should look to states that already conduct elections entirely by mail, like Washington and Colorado, for lessons.

Washington is likely to fare better than many states, Secretary of State Kim Wyman said, in part because of two measures that other states could still adopt: making ballot drop boxes widely available and accepting ballots postmarked by Election Day, even if their delivery is delayed.

Already, battles over both deadlines and drop boxes are playing out around the country as states scramble to prepare for a general election in which at least three-quarters of voters will be eligible to vote by mail. Just a quarter of voters cast their ballots by mail in 2016.

In Pennsylvania, President Donald Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee sued election officials June 29 after the state’s primary, claiming the use of drop boxes was unconstitutional and asking a federal court to block their use in the Nov. 3 general election.

The lawsuit cites unspecified threats to election integrity, alleging Pennsylvania officials “have sacrificed the sanctity of in-person voting at the altar of unmonitored mail-in voting and have exponentially enhanced the threat that fraudulent or otherwise ineligible ballots will be cast and counted in the forthcoming general election.”

On Thursday, a Trump-appointed judge in Pittsburgh ordered the campaign to back up its claim that the drop boxes enable fraud. Wyman, a Republican, said Washington’s decades of experience with drop boxes have shown them to be a reliable and popular way to cast ballots.

“We started installing them in about 1994,” said Wyman, who served as Thurston County auditor for 12 years before becoming the state’s top election official. “Our experience has been that we haven’t seen evidence of tampering or fraud or any illegal activity related to those boxes any more than we’d see at a polling place.”

“I just think it empowers the voters,” Wyman said of the state’s more than 400 drop boxes. “We’ve had a really positive experience with them. So I’m a little concerned that if you start eliminating those options and it all goes back to the post office, it’s harder to refute those allegations that are made by either side about Postal Service delivery.”

The Postal Service’s ability to deliver ballots to voters has come under intense scrutiny in recent days, after The Spokesman Review reported Aug. 9 that Wyman had received a letter from USPS General Counsel Thomas Marshall warning of “a risk that some ballots will not be returned by mail in time to be counted.”

Trump has repeatedly railed against mail-in voting, even as he requested his own mail-in ballot Wednesday to vote in Florida’s Aug. 18 primary. On Thursday, Trump said he opposed Democrats’ plan to provide $25 billion in emergency funding requested by the USPS board of governors and $3.6 billion in election funding to states because the money would enable more mail-in voting.

“They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump said on Fox Business. “But if they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.”

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a major Trump campaign donor who took the helm at the USPS in June, has implemented changes union officials blame for slowing mail delivery, including restrictions on overtime and removing more than 500 mail sorting machines from facilities around the country, as Motherboard first reported.

“We take umbrage with people talking about how voting by mail can be fraudulent,” said Omar Gonzalez, western regional coordinator for the American Postal Workers Union. “Once that mail gets into the system, it is protected by so many laws and the dedication of postal workers. We can get it done. What we don’t need is any interference.”

The Washington Post reported Friday that 46 states and the District of Columbia received letters like the one sent to Wyman warning that the agency could not guarantee that election mail sent at a discounted postage rate will be given first-class treatment, as it traditionally has, although USPS officials assured Wyman on Aug. 10 that it remains a top priority. The change could force cash-strapped states to spend more to ensure ballots get to voters quickly.

Those warnings – coupled with widespread reports of delayed mail and DeJoy’s announcement Aug. 9 of a major organizational shakeup at USPS – have made ballot drop boxes an even more relevant part of the nation’s voting infrastructure.

About 75% of Colorado voters cast their ballots in drop boxes, according to Colorado’s secretary of state, and in Washington about half of ballots have been submitted via drop box over the past several years, according to data from Wyman’s office.

But not all voters will have the same easy access to drop boxes Washingtonians enjoy. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, said Wednesday that the state could have no more than one drop box per county, citing questions about state law and the risk of litigation. The are 25 drop boxes in Spokane County alone.

Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor for elections at the Democracy Fund, a nonpartisan foundation that supports voting access, said she understood LaRose was trying to ensure parity and avoid lawsuits like the Trump campaign filed against Pennsylvania officials, but the limited number of drop boxes could be a problem this fall.

“I think that only having one is going to be a real challenge,” said Patrick, who ran elections in Arizona’s most populous county, Maricopa, for a decade. “You have to make sure that voters have options. If we’re not going to support the Postal Service, and we’re not going to make sure that election officials have the proper funding to pay for ballot postage, and we’re also not going to allow for drop boxes, what are we saying about how voters are supposed to vote in a global pandemic? If you connect the dots, voters have to vote in person.”

In-person voting is likely to be harder, too, as states face shortages of both poll workers and polling places due to the pandemic. It may be too late for some states to install the heavy-gauge steel boxes Washington uses, but Wyman said she recommends states allow voters to drop their mail-in ballots in boxes at any polling place, which could be watched by poll workers.

The other major safeguard Washington voters have, Wyman said, is that the state counts any ballots that are postmarked on or before Election Day, even if the mail is delayed. But in many other states, ballots must be received by county officials before the polls close on Election Day.

Ballots are typically returned by “business reply” mail, with delivery times similar to first-class postage, but Wyman said many ballots in Washington’s Aug. 4 primary arrived the following Thursday, later than was usual in past years.

“For 10s of millions of Americans, their ballot is handed to them by a postal carrier, not a poll worker,” Patrick said. “If they don’t allow for drop boxes, what happens to those voters that don’t get their ballot until that last week or so before the election? It’s too late for them to mail it back.”

New York City offered a preview of what could happen this fall after voters there cast more than 10 times the number of absentee ballots in their state’s June primary than in past elections, overwhelming election officials. Many voters didn’t receive their ballots until the day before the primary, and without drop boxes available, thousands of late ballots were thrown out.

Over a month later, a federal judge ordered that more than 1,200 late ballots be counted as long as they were received the day after the primary or postmarked by primary day.

“A lot of voters are going to throw it in the mailbox on Election Day thinking they’re fine, and those ballots are going to be rejected,” Wyman said. “I imagine there will be teams of lawyers that will challenge that after the fact. They’ll argue that it’s the delays in the Postal Service that disenfranchised those voters, and now the decision is going to hang with a judge and it’s going to vary state to state instead of being something that we probably should be looking at comprehensively right now.”

The stakes are especially high in the handful of “swing states” that could decide the presidential race. In Pennsylvania, which Trump narrowly won in 2016, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration on Thursday asked the state supreme court to allow ballots to be counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day and received by the following Friday.

The results of November’s pivotal election could turn on how many mail-in ballots are counted, and recent polls point to the president’s rationale for opposing funds to the Postal Service and sowing distrust in the agency’s ability to handle election mail.

An Axios/SurveyMonkey poll conducted Aug. 11-12 found that 80% of self-identified conservative Republicans plan to vote in person, while just 33% of self-identified liberal Democrats do. A Monmouth University poll released Tuesday had similar results, with just 22% of Republican voters saying they were “very” or “somewhat” likely to vote by mail, while 72% of Democratic voters said the same.

“I think it’s problematic if we have someone who is trying to drive certain voters away from voting by mail,” Patrick said, “and at the same time undermining confidence in voting by mail and changing the way in which our mail is processed.”

Patrick pointed out that mail-in voting has traditionally been supported by both Republicans and Democrats, and has in the past been preferred by the older and more rural voters who tend to vote for the GOP, so Trump’s opposition to it could also backfire.

The USPS changes have raised bipartisan alarm in Congress. All 47 Senate Democrats sent a letter to DeJoy on Wednesday, asking him to clarify how the agency will handle election mail.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said he is in favor of mandating that the USPS treat all election mail as first-class mail.

“The U.S. Postal Service provides a necessary service to millions of Americans, particularly those in rural communities,” Risch said in a statement. “Americans deserve a system that is efficient and reliable, and I will continue to support efforts to reform the USPS so that it is self-sustaining and viable in the long-term.”

With the spotlight on USPS slowdowns and serious ballot access questions across the country, Patrick said Washingtonians shouldn’t take their state’s safeguards for granted.

“I think it’s important for voters in Washington to know that they’re in a very good place right now, in this awful moment in history,” she said. “They should know that many other election officials and voters from across the country are a little envious of the infrastructure that you have in place, and they should have every confidence that their vote will be counted, but still to make sure to get it back early enough and not wait unless you’re going to drop it at a drop-off location.”

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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