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Election Officials Worry Postal Changes Could Affect Voting By Mail

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The post office is cutting overtime hours for workers as part of a new business plan to ensure financial stability. That means your mail delivery could be delayed from time to time, and that also is raising concerns, with the presidential election approaching and millions of Americans planning to cast their ballots by mail. Sally Herships has more.

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: Barb Byrum is clerk for Ingham County in Michigan. She's the chief election official. So the idea of mail being delayed does not sit well with her.

BARB BYRUM: So this is extraordinarily concerning because Michigan law requires that the ballot be in the possession of the local clerk by the time polls close on Election Day.

HERSHIPS: Byrum is worried because she says her county has already been experiencing delays due to the pandemic. She knows because she issues death certificates, and funeral homes aren't getting them.

BYRUM: It was taking well over three weeks for them to get death certificates that were mailed from, literally, 15 miles away.

HERSHIPS: And just ask her if it takes longer for rural areas, like the part of the county she lives in, to get its mail.

BYRUM: Oh, my soul, it does. Yeah. Oh, yeah. So I live out in the rural portion of my county, and it has historically always taken a day or two or maybe three more days for me to get mail. Yeah. Yeah.

HERSHIPS: So Byrum is worried that voters, especially in rural areas, will not be able to mail their ballots back on time. The National Vote at Home Institute says, to save money, many rural communities opt for a cheaper but slower nonprofit postage rate. If they switch to first class to try to get mail out faster, it could double their costs. And to make things even more complicated, every state has its own rules and regulations around voting by mail, and those rules are not delay-friendly.

TAMMY PATRICK: Traditionally, all mail picked up on any given day is postmarked that day. Even if it takes until after midnight, it still receives the same day's postmark.

HERSHIPS: Tammy Patrick is a senior adviser at the Democracy Fund, a nonprofit foundation.

PATRICK: So for states that a ballot has to be postmarked by Election Day or by whatever the deadline, it's quite possible under this new regime that a ballot wouldn't get its postmark until the next day, and that could in fact disenfranchise a voter.

HERSHIPS: Then Patrick says that, in a number of states, voters can request ballots just days before an election. The problem is if the mail is slow, you may not be able to mail back your vote in time. And she says billions of pieces of political mail go through the mail stream, and ballots are just a small part of that.

PATRICK: Those candidates and campaigns and political action committees and political parties are investing billions of dollars into the mail stream, and they want to make sure that their mail is moving as well.

HERSHIPS: And so do the many local governments that are required by state law to send out election materials in a timely manner.

UNIDENTIFIED MAIL CARRIER: I'm scared that it's not going to happen.

HERSHIPS: This is a mail carrier in Pennsylvania. We're not using her name because she's worried about losing her job if she speaks out. She points to the new head of the Postal Service, a close ally of President Trump's. Trump makes frequent false claims that mail-in ballots lead to widespread fraud. This mail carrier and others worry that these cost-cutting measures could also be an attempt to disrupt the election.

UNIDENTIFIED MAIL CARRIER: And I'm scared that that's almost voter suppression when it's being done on purpose.

HERSHIPS: She says the Postal Service reaches every American, regardless of their political standpoint.

UNIDENTIFIED MAIL CARRIER: I mean, for goodness sake, I think the Grand Canyon, we reach people via donkey.

HERSHIPS: It's a mule, actually, a nonpartisan mail carrier. As for the post office, it says it's doing all it can to provide prompt and reliable service. And Tammy Patrick of the Democracy Fund says there's an easy fix - if you're voting by mail, vote early.

For NPR News, I'm Sally Herships.

(SOUNDBITE OF WE CAME FROM THE NORTH'S "BORDER MONUMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.