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Originally published Sunday, November 25, 2012 at 8:54 PM

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Postal Service cuts could affect state's mail-in voting

State elections officials say the planned closures of five mail-processing centers in Washington would require voters in rural areas to submit their ballots earlier on Election Day — possibly extending the ballot-counting process.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Washington's all-mail election system, already dealing with public frustration over how long it takes to count ballots, is about to face a new challenge: U.S. Postal Service cutbacks.

State elections officials say the planned closures of five mail-processing centers in Washington would require voters in rural areas to submit their ballots earlier on Election Day — and possibly delay ballots arriving at county elections offices.

The changes would leave the state with just two centers for mail to be sorted and postmarked, in Seattle and Spokane. That would move up daily collection times in the middle of the state to give workers time to get the mail to a processing center. That, in turn, would require voters who wait until Election Day to mail their ballots to do it earlier in the day.

State law requires that ballots be postmarked by Election Day.

"We are very much concerned," said Sheryl Moss, a Secretary of State's Office employee who serves on a national committee providing input on the effects of the changes. "This will make it more difficult on the voters."

A Postal Service spokesman downplayed the effect on voting.

"We will see minimal, if any, issues, and we'll continue to work with officials in upcoming elections like we did for the just-completed general election," said the spokesman, David Rupert, noting that all mail submitted before the collection time will be postmarked on that day.

The changes, which are set to be phased in over the next two years unless Congress acts, also reduce hours at 39 individual post offices, mostly in rural areas. But local officials are particularly concerned about the processing-center closures planned in Everett, Olympia, Pasco, Wenatchee and Redmond.

Moss said the Secretary of State's Office will respond by asking voters to mail their ballots earlier and by encouraging the use of county ballot drop-boxes, which are becoming increasingly popular. The boxes are expensive to set up, however, and one of the benefits of the all-mail system is its lower cost.

Republican Kim Wyman, who won election this month to replace retiring Secretary of State Sam Reed, could not be reached for comment over the holiday weekend.

Meredith Kenny, a spokeswoman for the State Republican Party, and Benton Strong, a spokesman for the State Democratic Party, each said they would need more information before commenting.

But party officials in Benton County said they are concerned about the Postal Service changes.

"Many of our seniors depend on mail pickups from their local neighborhood," Malakay Betor, treasurer of the Benton County Democrats, wrote in an email.

"Routing the mail to Spokane and then back to Benton County might disqualify their votes. By requiring rural citizens to vote early to ensure the proper postal date stamp, we are creating a precedent for disparate voting regulations, which is anathema to our democracy," Betor said.

The cutbacks also could delay ballots arriving at county elections offices, potentially extending the counting process by a day, Moss said.

Elections officials, citing security measures such as manually verifying the signature on each ballot envelope with the voter's signature on file, say it takes a day and a half to process and count batches of ballots as they come in.

Because many ballots arrive on Election Day or the day after, only about 60 percent of ballots are counted on the night of the election, and some races remain uncalled for days.

Election officials contend the delay doesn't hurt anybody except for news reporters, but some politicians disagree.

"As soon as the election ends, you start planning for the (legislative) session," said former state Rep. Lynn Kessler, a Hoquiam Democrat who served as House majority leader before retiring in 2010. "They all act like we've got nothing to do (after the election). No, no, no, we've got everything to do."

The cutbacks are necessary after a 25 percent reduction in first-class mail over the past five years, said Rupert, the Postal Service spokesman. They could be partially averted if Congress allows the Postal Service to cut Saturday delivery and gives the agency more leeway in paying health benefits to retirees.

Dave Ammons, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office, said officials will adapt to whatever happens.

"We'll adjust," he said. "If the post office throws us a curveball, we'll figure out what to do about it."

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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