Wednesday, 18 November 2015 00:00

Nearly 900 absentee ballots in Summit County thrown out for lack of postmark; elections board to hold hearing to question postal officials about issue

Written by Stephanie Warsmith | Akron Beacon Journal

You filled out your absentee ballot and put it in the mail. You assumed it would be postmarked and arrive at the elections board in time to be counted.

For nearly 900 voters in Summit County, that assumption was wrong.

Their absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 election weren’t counted Wednesday because they lacked a postmark.

The ballots lacking postmarks amounted to 9 percent of the 10,130 mail-in absentee ballots the Summit County Board of Elections received in this election. It was the highest number thrown out since 2008, when the state law on mailed early ballots was changed.

A total of 167,951 Summit County voters cast ballots in November’s election.

Summit County Elections Board members think the increase in late ballots without postmarks was caused by the closure of Akron’s mail processing center earlier this year, which resulted in mail sent locally going to Cleveland before coming back to Akron. They also question whether the U.S. Postal Service is doing a good enough job of making sure absentee ballots are postmarked in a timely manner.

Concerned about the problem being amplified in next year’s presidential election, board members voted Wednesday to hold a hearing on the issue at 10 a.m. Dec. 28. The board will issue subpoenas to the post masters general in Akron and Cleveland to appear at the hearing.

Tim Gorbach, the board’s chairman, called the number of absentee ballots discounted for a lack of postmark huge and alarming.

“The voting public needs to know they don’t have a qualified partner in getting their ballots in,” added board member Bryan Williams.

The board voted not to count 861 late ballots Wednesday because of a lack of a postmark. The voters whose absentee ballots weren’t counted because of this or other issues will be sent letters by the board.

“This could have changed outcomes,” Williams said.

The board also plans to notify Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted and Summit County’s congressional delegation and senators about the issue and to talk to neighboring elections boards to find out if they’ve had the same problem.

“We can’t throw a blind eye to this many ballots not being counted,” Williams said.

David Van Allen, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, said postal officials will meet with Summit County elections board leaders Thursday to discuss the “preliminary results” they have found.

“The Postal Service has a proud tradition of participating in the democratic process by processing and delivering political election mail, including domestic and overseas absentee ballots,” he said in an email. “We appreciate the importance and sensitivity of election mail and work hard to deliver every piece on time and ensure the mail is processed correctly.”

Until September 2008, mailed absentee ballots had to be received by elections boards by 7:30 p.m. on Election Day to be counted. The legislature change the law, allowing boards to count absentee ballots postmarked by the day before the election and received within 10 days of the election. The postmark is used to gauge the cutoff.

The postal service closed the mail processing center at Akron’s facility on Wolf Ledges Parkway — the post office remained open — in mid-April and moved processing duties to Cleveland. The closure, part of an effort to save the postal service money, followed a campaign by local and national leaders to keep Akron’s center open.

Summit County’s late ballots — with and without postmarks — were significantly higher than usual in both the May and September primaries and the November election this year, the first elections since the mail-distribution-center change. The percentage of late ballots had generally stayed at 1 percent or lower of the mail-in ballots received by the board. That number jumped to 3.66 percent in the May primary, 2.88 percent in September and 8.96 percent in November.

The board received about 600 ballots on the day after the November election. About 200 had postmarks; the rest that did not.

Of the 47 absentee ballots received late but with a postmark, 33 didn’t count because the postmarks were illegible, said Paula Sauter, the board’s deputy director.

The absentee ballots that weren’t counted because they lacked a postmark took up four bins, which were wheeled into the board meeting on a cart by board employees.

Gorbach said some of the absentee ballots without postmarks may have been sent past the deadline or deficient for another reason, but board employees didn’t give them this level of scrutiny because the missing postmark disqualified them.

The board’s staff sent several emails to postal officials in the past year, raising concerns about the closing of the mail distribution center and the postmark problem.

Gorbach said he thinks the postmark issue should be a major concern for all elected officials in Summit County.

Akron Mayor Jeff Fusco, who was among the local leaders who fought the distribution-center closing, agreed.

“No resident of Akron should discover that their vote will not be counted because of the U.S. Postal Service’s decisions in balancing their budget,” Fusco, who is in Germany on a work trip, said in an email. “Absentee voting is increasing every year. Post office operations and Ohio election law need to reflect that.”

Link to original article from Akron Beacon Journal

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