News that this November’s Pierce County absentee ballot will cost an estimated 61 cents to mail has prompted some to wonder whether ballots with insufficient postage will be delivered and counted.
But a little-known county policy should ensure ballots are returned even if they lack the needed postage, according to
Auditor Jan Shabro.
Shabro confirmed a county policy of paying the postage for ballots mailed without sufficient postage. She said the office’s contract with the U.S. Postal Service specifies that the ballots will be delivered even without the correct postage, and the county will make up the difference.
“To our knowledge, short a post office error, all ballots are forwarded to us and are counted,” Shabro said.
She said the office does not publicize the policy because it wants people to pay the correct postage.
But in light of recent criticism of her office, Shabro said she thinks “the public should know the facts and not be worried about their ballots being returned for insufficient postage.”
Last week Tacoma City Councilwoman Julie Anderson – who is running for auditor against Shabro – criticized Shabro’s handling of the return postage. Anderson said Shabro should have done more to pay for postage or at least done a better job of informing voters they’d be paying extra.
“Decisions that voters will have to make on this ballot are difficult enough,” Anderson said in a press release. “They shouldn’t have to worry about whether their ballots will be received and votes counted.”
After confirming the county’s policy of paying for postage, Shabro fired back: “I think it’s unfortunate that my opponent has misled the public in an effort to discredit me and win an election. People’s votes are sacred and should not be manipulated.”
Shabro still hopes voters will pay the required postage to mail their ballots and spare her office’s budget.
“I think most people are honest and will either put the correct postage on their return envelopes or will use our express booths, ballot drop boxes or bring their ballots to the polls so they will not have to pay any postage,” she said.
Update: I asked Julie Anderson for a response. She provided this statement:
An Auditor must be consistent, fair and transparent. That means uniform application of postage rules, as well as complete information and clear instructions for voters.
Most voters are willing to apply a stamp, to pay for the convenience of mail. In this election, we are asked to provide additional postage to accommodate an unusually heavy and large ballot.
The Auditor could have paid the postage, to avoid confusion, or could have clearly asked voters to apply two stamps.
A dedicated postal account left over from Pat McCarthy, does exist for this purpose. Shabro said that she wants to preserve this fund for future elections. This raises the question, which elections and which voters will have their postage waived?
“Free postage” precincts receive Business Reply envelopes, which require no postage if mailed in the U.S. Shabro asks us to apply extra postage in this election, but still sends some precincts the Business Reply envelope. This practice was created long ago, when mail-in voting was initiated, to appease voters who live in areas where there are too few voters to warrant a polling station. If Shabro is desperate for money, why does she continue to give a “free pass” to some precincts?
Shabro has known since her appointment that extra postage would likely be required in the General Election. There was plenty of time to create a free media campaign to alert voters and provide them with clear instructions. That did not happen, and now candidates and advocacy groups are scrambling to get the word out.
If Shabro made arrangements with the USPS to guarantee delivery of ballots, why did it take so long for her to tell the public? People simply want to know that if they make a mistake with their postage, the ballot will still get to where it needs to go. Hearing nothing, many people logically concluded that ballots with insufficient postage would not be delivered.
And in some cases, that appears to be the truth. I received a first-hand report from one carrier who was instructed to not pick up ballots with insufficient postage.
Instructions to voters in this election have been vague and contradictory. In some places, voters are alerted that “extra postage” is due. In other places, “an estimated $0.61”. There are at least four different messages to voters.
As Pierce County’s next Auditor, I will provide clear, advance communication so no one is surprised when election materials arrive. Pierce County voters have too many important decisions to consider in this election. Postage shouldn’t be one of their dilemmas.