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GAO Report Says Vote By Mail Won't Save the Postal Service. Is That The Right Question?

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[Image courtesy of Financial Helpers]

Today's Election Data Dispatch from Pew looks at an October 2011 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). GAO's report, prepared at the request of U.S. Senator Tom Carper, examines the potentially intertwined futures of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and the nation's vote-by-mail system.

Specifically, Carper asked GAO to "examine how much additional revenue could result from the increased use of voting by mail--that is, more registered voters receiving and casting ballots through the mail."

To answer the question, GAO used a presidential election as its focus:

To gauge the potential impact of increased voting by mail under one possible scenario, we estimated the election mail volume that could have resulted if the 2008 presidential election had been conducted solely by mail. Our estimate assumed 190 million outgoing ballots--one for each registered voter in 2008--and 134 million returned, completed ballots--the number of voters who actually cast ballots in the 2008 election--resulting in 324 million pieces of mail[.]

With this data as a backdrop, GAO estimated that "an all-mail 2008 presidential election could have generated revenue ranging from $224 million using Nonprofit Standard Mail rates to $415 million using First Class Mail rates, representing less than 1 percent of USPS's total fiscal year 2009 revenue of $68.1 billion."

In short, GAO concluded that vote by mail would be a drop in the Postal Service's already very leaky revenue bucket - even if turnout rates approached 100% and even if the mail was used for other elections including nonfederal (state and local) contests.

As a piece of analysis, the GAO report is a model of evidence-based election administration: explicit about its assumptions, thorough in its methods, straightforward and clear about its conclusions.

And yet reading it, I can't help but feel as if they were asking - or, to be fair, were asked by Congress to ask - the wrong questions.

While it's useful to know that election materials are a tiny fraction of the Postal Service's business, it's crucial to understand what portion of election materials (and what portion of election officials' budgets) rely on the Postal Service - and THAT fraction is likely to be much higher and of greater interest to election officials.

Over at Brian Newby's ElectionDiary you can already see, as he says, that the persistent theme is the Postal Service - the cost of producing and mailing materials, and the frustrations about service that are not uncommon when dealing with the post office. If postal service cutbacks begin to affect mail delivery, it could have a crippling effect on the thousands of offices across the nation for whom the postal carrier is a de facto member of the election team.

In short, someone - maybe GAO, maybe someone else, but SOMEONE - needs to examine whether the nation's election administrators can survive without the USPS, not the other way around.

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