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No Mail on Saturdays? Election Officials Consider the Impact

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[Image courtesy of bostonherald]

Yesterday, the U.S. Postal Service announced that beginning in August, it will stop home collection and delivery of mail on Saturdays in an effort to keep itself afloat despite mounting financial losses.

The story is notable in itself - as I've already seen in numerous pieces, the USPS has the potential to touch every home in America six days a week - but the impact is especially keen in the elections field, where growing reliance on vote-by-mail and absentee ballots has made election officials and the Post Office partners in the delivery and receipt of ballots.

In the Pacific Northwest, where voters in Oregon and Washington now vote completely by mail, state officials are already making plans to cope if the USPS goes through with the plan to end Saturday service. According to the Oregonian, Oregon officials are concerned both that voters wouldn't get their ballots as quickly and that return ballots might stack up in the days before an election:

Currently, many Oregon voters receive their ballot on Saturday, 17 days before an election. That could be pushed two days later, to Monday, under the Postal Service's plans.

Ending Saturday mail delivery can also affect ballot returns. Elections officials might reconsider their recommendation that voters mail back their ballots no later than the Friday before an election ...

[In addition,] ending Saturday delivery could double the number of ballots that arrive on the Monday before an election. That could slow processing since workers are already inundated with ballots in the final days before an election.

While Oregon's Secretary of State intends to keep fighting the Saturday closure, the state is already investigating its options, including printing and mailing ballots sooner.

Washington State is also keeping a close eye on the Postal Service, but is prepared to assist voters with the new mail schedule if need be. Moreover, a growing percentage of voters in both states no longer use the mail to return their ballots. As Washington's Secretary of State observes,

[M]any Washington voters already are using secure drop boxes that are placed by county election officials in convenient locations. This method is increasingly popular. Many counties say that more than half of their ballots are returned by way of drop boxes, and I support expansion of this approach. With this option, of course, voters can cast their ballots as late as 8 p.m. Election Day without fear of missing the postmark deadline.

I think you can expect both states - and others, like California, who increasingly rely on vote-by-mail - to step up their investment in dropboxes or other direct return methods.

That doesn't mean, however, that election officials are happy or agree with the plans to end Saturday home postal service. Johnson County's Brian Newby has a great new blog post questioning the decision and characterizing it as a losing strategy:

In my view, eliminating any day of delivery is a mistake. It's the beginning of what I've termed in other industries as the Light the Fuse Strategy.

I first coined the Light the Fuse Strategy when evaluating options while working as director of strategic planning at Sprint 10 years ago. We saw voice calls moving to calls over data facilities and wireline minutes shifting to wireless minutes.

We saw a large part of our revenues and margins evaporating, but we didn't stop letting people call on Saturdays. We recognized that shrinking to survive was not the answer.

Jettisoning an unprofitable part of the business can be a smart strategic move. But shrinking to survive, or worse--thinking you are shrinking to grow--can be a terrible approach. Look at US News and Newsweek. Those magazines still exist, virtually. The fuse is nearing the end for them as well ...

Newby also notes that the USPS decision is likely to hit election officials especially hard because "elections is an industry that is actually looking to increase the use of the Postal Service. I can't think of another industry that is in that mode." Without the Postal Service (who, he concedes, hasn't always been the most reliable partner) Newby wonders how his 340,000 Johnson County, KS voters will cast their ballots for President in 2016.

In the wake of yesterday's announcement, I'm guessing lots of election officials feel the same way.

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