MADISON – The U.S. Postal Service is warning election officials it won’t be able to deliver absentee ballots on time for many voters who request them close to their states’ deadlines.
The message is in line with what a federal judge said last week as he considered whether to change Wisconsin’s voting rules for an election that will be conducted during the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. Distirct Judge William Conley said there was no way voters who ask for ballots just before Election Day get them on time to cast them — even though by law they’re allowed to ask for them up until five days before the election.
Thomas Marshall, the general counsel for the postal service, recently warned 46 states that it could not guarantee ballots would be cast that are requested close to the deadlines, according to The Washington Post.
“This mismatch (between deadlines and delivery schedules) creates a risk that ballots requested near the deadline under state law will not be returned by mail in time to be counted under your laws as we understand them,” postal service general counsel Thomas Marshall wrote North Carolina’s secretary of state.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission has not yet received a letter, agency spokesman Reid Magney said Friday. But commissioners, municipal clerks and others have long recognized that voters who request absentee ballots just before the deadline risk losing the opportunity to vote.
Wisconsin officials are urging people to request their absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 election as early as possible. Mail can take as much as a week in each direction, so receiving and returning an absentee ballot can take up to two weeks.
Until this year, mail voting was relatively rare in Wisconsin. But because of the pandemic, voters turned to absentee voting in unprecedented numbers in the April election for state Supreme Court and this week’s primary. The flood of mail ballots is expected to be even bigger for November.
The absentee voting challenges will be exacerbated by recent changes at the post office that have slowed the delivery of mail. The changes were made to cut costs.
In Wisconsin, voters are allowed to request absentee ballots as late as the Thursday before the election.
But Conley said at the hearing last week that ballots requested even a week before that deadline almost surely wouldn’t be returned in time to be counted. Ballots in Wisconsin must be back in the hands of clerks by election day.
He suggested the election rules established in state law aren’t fair.
“An unsophisticated voter, a reasonable voter, would assume the state would have set the deadline because it makes sense,” Conely told an attorney for GOP lawmakers who are arguing the state’s deadlines should not change.
Conley is expected to rule by the end of the month in response to lawsuits brought by Democrats and others who say numerous election laws should be changed because of the pandemic.
For April’s election, Conley allowed absentee ballots to be counted if clerks received them up until a week after election day. In a subsequent ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court required those ballots to have been postmarked by election day.
Contact Patrick Marley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.