Thursday, April 12, 2012

Every Vote Counts — Except When the Post Office Is on the Brink

By Holly McDede
Thu, Apr 12, 2012 at 9:44 AM

This afternoon, the National Association of Letter Carriers will be hitting the streets (the streets identified here in a delightful chart) to defend the post office. There’s another nationwide demonstration called Occupy the Post Office organized by Community and Postal Workers United set for April 17.

There's reason to demonstrate. Currently, 223 post office processing centers nationwide are slated to close starting this summer, and 14 of those are in California — including the one in Petaluma, which means all North Bay mail will be headed to the Oakland processing center. Petaluma is 47.5 miles away from Oakland, and not all the Petaluma mail clerks will be financially fit enough to travel the distance. 229 positions will be lost, and mail in the Oakland processing center could pile up.

So, that’s a problem. Not just for citizens, or for mail carriers, but for the entire vote-by-mail system. Voters can no longer expect their ballots to arrive overnight once the consolidations take place — or, worse, they'lll expect their ballot to arrive overnight, and then it won't.

In the November 2008 presidential election, 41.6% of Californians who voted cast their ballots by mail, compared to 5% in 2000. In Alameda County in 2010, vote-by-mail turnout was more than twice as high as that at the polls. Because vote-by-mail turnout is higher than that of traditional voting, many political campaigns (including, notably, Obama's) are increasingly pushing permanent absenteeism — and for elderly, infirm, rural, or military voters, it may be the only option.

But just as many of us don’t like to be rushed to decide what to order for lunch, people like to take their time when choosing who should be their president. In Alameda County in 2010, 150,000 vote-by-mail ballots arrived before Election Day. 90,000 arrived on Election Day.

In order to be counted, the ballot must arrive before 8 p.m. on Election Day. Which is a problem, according to one Oakland shop steward for the National Postal Mail Handlers Union who asked to remain anonymous. “We’re no longer required to deliver mail overnight,” the steward said. “So if you mail something Monday, will it get where it needs to get by Tuesday? Who knows.”

Even state election officials like Secretary of State Debra Bowen have expressed concern about the post office. According to Shannan Velayas, Bowen's press secretary, postal officials didn’t consider the impact closures could have on voting until Bowen raised the issue. Now the post office is promising an “Election Mail Task Force” that will “work with all fifty states to develop strategies that address the questions and concerns of state and local election boards.”

Originally, the post office was scheduled to begin consolidations after May 15. Due to pressure from election officials, it will wait until after the California primaries. One NPMHU shop steward for the Petaluma facility expressed confusion when this was mentioned to him, and said, “No, we’re moving ahead with the plan, as far as I know.” And if postal officials are in the dark about their own livelihoods, voters probably won’t be much better off.

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