State election officials say they will work with their counterparts in the U.S. Postal Service to clear up concerns around an apparent policy change that’s causing some absentee ballots to make an extra trip through regional processing hubs, even if they’re just going from one address to another within the same city or town.
As recently as the September state primary, election clerks across New Hampshire say their post offices were able to hold onto absentee ballots heading to or from voters with local addresses. But some clerks now say they were surprised to learn, when shipping out their absentee ballots for the general election, that’s no longer the case.
Instead, some clerks say absentee ballots and other mail that previously stayed local is now being sent through regional processing centers in Manchester, N.H., or White River Junction, Vt. — resulting in an extra day or more of travel time.
(Completed absentee ballots must arrive to local election officials by 5 p.m. on Nov. 3, whether by mail or hand delivery. If you're mailing your ballot, officials recommend sending it two weeks before Election Day.)
Local election officials in Atkinson, Conway, Harrisville, Hollis, Merrimack, Sunapee and Wilmot raised the issue during a public call with the Secretary of State’s office Tuesday morning. Local clerks in several other communities — including Lyme, Milford and Randolph — confirmed separately that they, too, were experiencing the same thing.
Many of those clerks said they learned of the absentee ballot processing changes from employees at their local post offices, who said they received the instructions from more senior Postal Service officials.
“It puts the local post people in an awkward situation as well because they want to keep the ballots in town,” Cathy Lovas, Harrisville town clerk, told state election officials during Tuesday’s call.
NHPR reached out repeatedly to Postal Service officials with questions on context surrounding the recent absentee ballot delivery changes described by New Hampshire clerks.
Stephen Doherty, a regional spokesman for the agency, said the Postal Service’s “number one priority between now and Election Day is the secure, on-time delivery of the nation’s Election Mail.”
While Doherty pointed to a number of steps the Postal Service has recently taken to accelerate the delivery of absentee ballots, he did not address direct questions from NHPR seeking clarification about the changes local clerks have encountered when sending their absentee ballots to voters for the general election.
Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan said Tuesday that his office would follow up on the issue.
“I think that, just based on hearing this conversation, we will approach the post office at the state level so that we can make sure that the policy they put in place is going to allow absentee ballots to be efficiently received and accounted for,” Scanlan told clerks on Tuesday’s call.
It’s not clear how many communities are affected by the changes. Some clerks, when contacted by NHPR, said they haven’t noticed any difference in how absentee ballots are being handled.
It’s also not clear that the change is causing significant delays in the delivery of absentee ballots. It is causing some confusion, however — since clerks in some of the affected towns had been assuring their voters all local absentee ballots would stay local, because that’s how they were handled in the September state primary and other elections.
“I told all my residents, ‘Don't worry, put it in the mail, it's all staying local,’ ” Milford Town Clerk Joan Dargie told NHPR. “Because they all have concerns of what they heard on the news.”
Now, Dargie says she’s going to encourage residents to deliver absentee ballots directly to her office whenever possible — not because she doesn’t trust local letter carriers, but because she wants to keep absentee ballots local as often as possible.
Anne Kenison, the town clerk in Randolph, similarly worried that voters were given mixed messages because local election officials like her didn’t get enough notice about the absentee ballot delivery changes.
“My concern is now that some people might be a little leery about using the post office,” Kenison said. “Because we had told people that you could take them in [to the post office] and they would cancel them right there and deliver it the next day. And I had three people call me and say that that was refused.”
Kenison said her local post office is keeping a close eye on absentee ballot delivery times and doing everything it can to ensure they’re transported efficiently.
Clerks in other communities said the same of their local post offices: One said their local postmaster made extra trips to ensure absentee ballots were delivered ahead of the deadline for the September state primary; another said their local postmaster even created his own chart to track how many absentee ballots are processed each day.
The Postal Service recently launched Local Election Mail Task Forces across the country, including in New Hampshire. The agency is also devoting extra resources to transportation, staffing and processing, according to an agency memo issued last week.
Janice Kelble, a retired letter carrier and legislative director for the local branch of the American Postal Workers Union, said voters can still trust that postal employees are trying everything within their power to shepherd absentee ballots to their destination.
“The last thing in the world that we want to do is to have the public’s confidence in us destroyed,” Kelble said. “So we want ballot mail to be handled as efficiently as we possibly can.”