USPS’ Confusing Vote-By-Mail Postcard Frustrates State Election Officials

Large boxes of envelopes are seen as absentee ballot election workers stuff ballot applications at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections office in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 4, 2020. - The US election... Large boxes of envelopes are seen as absentee ballot election workers stuff ballot applications at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections office in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 4, 2020. - The US election is officially open: North Carolina on September 4, 2020 launched vote-by-mail operations for the November 3 contest between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden, which is getting uglier by the day. Worries about the unabated spread of the coronavirus are expected to prompt a major increase in the number of ballots cast by mail, as Americans avoid polling stations. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo by LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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September 14, 2020 1:35 p.m.

The United States Postal Service has begun sending postcards to voters nationwide with information on casting their ballots through the mail. But Republican and Democratic election officials alike in several states say the information could just confuse voters with its one-size-fits-all advice. 

“These recommendations are not accurate for Nevada voters,” Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican and the state’s top election official, said in a press release over the weekend about the mailers. Cegavske urged Nevadans to “seek out trusted sources” for election information, such as her office or county officials.

Though the USPS postcard contains fairly generic advice, it conflicts with the laws and practices in several states, given the United States’ patchwork system of election administration. 

For example, the postcard urges voters to request a mail-in ballot “at least 15 days before Election Day.” But in some states, voters are sent ballots without having to request them. In Kentucky, on the other hand, voters must request a mail-in ballot by Oct. 9, 25 days before Election Day. 

CO Secretary of State

“My experience with voters is that there will be a portion of the voting population who will get this and be confused,” said Jennifer Morrell, a partner at The Elections Group and a former local election official in Utah and Colorado. “New voters, older voters, voters who are not savvy to the process in their state. It’s unfortunate they didn’t coordinate with anyone in the election community before sending this.”

Cegavske and other election officials, including Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, have said they weren’t aware of the mailer before it was sent.

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold sued over the mailers on Saturday. A federal judge ordered the USPS to stop sending them to voters in the state within hours, issuing a temporary restraining order and writing that the USPS mailer had given Colorado voters “false and misleading instructions about how they should vote in the 2020 election.”

USPS has asked the court to reconsider; in a filing Monday afternoon, lawyers for the agency disputed that Colorado had grounds to sue over the mailers at all, and said the postcards merely “advise postal customers to plan ahead, but warn customers that state laws vary and that they should consult those laws.”

State election officials sensed a headache.

“Appreciate the effort @USPS, but this could be confusing for California,” tweeted James Schwab, California’s chief deputy secretary of state. He pointed out that all active registered voters in California are receiving a ballot this year (they don’t have to request one) and that ballots postmarked by Election Day can be counted within 17 days — despite the USPS postcard’s recommendation to “mail your ballot at least 7 days before Election Day.” 

Voters in many states don’t have to mail back their ballots at all: They can return them in person to election officials, or place them in a drop-box.

Wayne Thorley, Nevada’s deputy secretary of state for elections, told TPM that his office began hearing over the weekend from confused voters who had received the USPS mailer. The Nevada Secretary of State’s office recently sent their own informational mailer to voters, which Thorley said “was much more specific to Nevada.”

“In their effort to create a postcard that was universally applicable — generic enough that it could apply across all the states — it ended up not really applying to any of them,” Thorley observed.

Maria Benson, a spokesperson for the National Association of Secretaries of State, told TPM that in a meeting last month with Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and his staff, “we urged staff to share any mailer with NASS first, so that we could help with any edits that may be necessary because of the differing election laws around the US.” 

“No draft, however, was shared with us before it began to be sent in the mail,” Benson said.

A USPS spokesperson, Marti Johnson, told TPM on Monday that the purpose of the mailer “was to send a single set of recommendations that provided general guidance allowing voters who choose mail-in voting to do so successfully, regardless of where they live and where they vote.”

The Postal Service was taking all measures to comply with the temporary restraining order issued in court in Colorado, she said.

“However, prior to the state’s filing and the ruling of the court, a substantial number of postcards had already been delivered to residents in Colorado. The Postal Service’s compliance efforts are focused on the postcards that have not yet been delivered,” Johnson said. 

In a court filing in the Colorado case, the Postal Service asserted that the mailers were sent “in the hopes of increasing the likelihood that their mail-in ballots would be timely received and counted and reducing the burden on the Postal Service of dealing with a crush of last-minute mailings.” 

In a separate declaration, the USPS’ executive director of brand marketing, Christopher Karpenko, wrote that the USPS decided to send a nationwide mailer with one set of advice because “certain states are continuing to modify their elections procedures and the USPS did not want to risk providing outdated information.” 

“In addition,” he wrote, “residents of some states may be registered voters in other states, it was impractical to tailor the guidance to each state. Given the practicalities of mailing more than 137 million postcards, the USPS decided instead to mail identical, simple, general messaging postcards to households across the country containing guidance for successfully using the U.S. Mail to submit their ballots if a voter wanted to vote by mail.”

Thorley, the Nevada elections official, said he wasn’t aware of any legal efforts his own state was considering over the mailer. Besides, he said, the postcards have already been sent all over the country. 

“The proverbial toothpaste is out of the tube,” he said. “My understanding is they’ve all been put in the mail. I don’t know how you stop that, at this point.” 

Tierney Sneed contributed reporting.

This post has been updated.

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