If you want your mail-in ballot to count in this year's elections, don't procrastinate, California's top elections official warned Wednesday: The U.S. Postal Service's downsizing plan could wind up leaving last-minute voters unheard.

Beleaguered after years of falling revenue, the Postal Service has proposed closing up to 11 mail processing centers in California as part of a national restructuring. And that could delay hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots from arriving at registrars across the state in time to be counted, Secretary of State Debra Bowen said.

"This is the biggest threat to a successful election that I've faced since I've been secretary of state," said Bowen, who took office in 2007. "We need to have this not happen until after the November election, because it's just too much change to deal with in too short a period of time."

Three postal centers have already closed in 2011, and up to eight more from a list of 15 potential targets -- including one in Burlingame -- could shut down sometime between May 15 and Labor Day, a period that starts just a few weeks shy of the state's June 5 primary election.

Postal Service spokesman Augustine Ruiz said the agency will announce by mid-May which centers it plans to close, but has not decided when the closures would take effect. Election mail "would be affected by the proposed service changes," he acknowledged.


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"However, the Postal Service, as always as in elections past, will be working with elected officials and their mailers in the coming months to ensure their mail is received and delivered in adequate time to respond," Ruiz said. While he couldn't advise voters how late they can wait to put their ballots in the mail, he said they should still arrive in time to be counted if the Postal Service processing center receives them the day before the election.

Translation: Don't wait too long to get your ballot in the mail.

Bowen said that's not good enough -- and not worth risking in a state where 48.4 percent of ballots in November 2010 were cast by mail.

A mail-in ballot -- which state law says a voter can request up until seven days before the election -- must be received by the voter's county election office no later than 8 p.m. on the day of the election; any received after that aren't counted. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, about 26,000 ballots arrived too late to be counted in California's November 2010 general election.

Last year, Bowen said, the three processing-center closures -- in Salinas, Marysville and Oxnard -- clearly affected local elections in Monterey and Ventura counties: The time it took to deliver outbound and receive inbound vote-by-mail ballots went from one to three days, to five to seven.

Monterey County Registrar of Voters Linda Tulett said the Salinas center's closure and a communications failure with the next-nearest center, in San Jose, meant 234 ballots that should've been delivered on time last November arrived a day late instead. Relying on a legal precedent from a past problem in another county, she counted those ballots anyway, but that'll be harder to do should such a problem happen in a year with much heavier voter turnout -- like this one.

Bowen said the Postal Service "told us this won't add more than one day to any delivery. We told them, 'Well, that's not what has actually happened on the ground.' So they're now taking a look at the experiences of election officials in the two California counties that already have been affected."

She's "cautiously optimistic" they'll see the light, but she isn't counting on it. She and election officials in other states across the nation support an amendment put forth by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that would force the Postal Service to delay the closures.

"Nobody's saying, 'Don't close anything, ever,' " Bowen said. "We're just asking for this to be a process that allows the election system, which has become so heavily dependent on voting by mail, to adjust."

Some of these closures might have happened already had Congress not pressured the Postal Service last year to impose a five-month moratorium, allowing more time to develop postal reform bills. That moratorium ends May 15; another would start Labor Day and last through the end of the year. Bowen, Wyden and others now want to close that May-to-Labor Day hole.

Loyola Law School Professor Jessica Levinson, an election-law expert who edits the PoLawTics blog, thinks that's wise. Voting by mail costs less than traditional polling places and boosts voter participation, she said, "but the mail service has to be functional and predictable, and it sounds like this is a close-to-disastrous decision when it comes to protecting the integrity of that system."

Follow Josh Richman at Twitter.com/josh_richman.

VOTING BY MAIL
November 2010 vote-by-mail statistics
California: 48.4%
Alameda: 54.1 %
Contra Costa: 53.2 %
Santa Clara: 68.4 %
San Mateo: 52.1 %
Source: Secretary of State's office