Shared from the 11/1/2018 The Advocate eEdition

Snail mail changes make absentee votes sluggish

Clerk warns: Ballots not sent by Friday likely won’t count


STAMFORD – There seemed to be something about the U.S. Postal Service and Tuesdays.

City and Town Clerk Lyda Ruijter, elected last year, noticed that her office didn’t get much mail on Tuesdays. It made her think about elections, held on Tuesdays, because her office must receive absentee ballots by that day.

Ruijter said she became worried about the Aug. 14 primary, so she contacted the Postal Service. But 29 absentee ballots arrived a day late, and those citizens’ votes in the primary were not counted.

“We got them all on Wednesday,” Ruijter said.

It stings because her office, like that of any town clerk, gives each absentee ballot close attention, Ruijter said.

“During the primary we learned that a person had been moved to a hospital. So we worked with the family and hustled to make sure an emergency ballot was delivered to the hospital,” she said. “It’s important. Every vote counts.”

After the primary, she contacted Stamford Postmaster Jeffrey Salamon, whose office is on Camp Avenue.

“They started monitoring it. They were communicating with us. In September we had mail on Tuesdays — a regular flow,” she said. “Then the first week of October, it stopped.”

She learned that Stamford’s mail now is processed in Westchester County, N.Y. After several phone calls, she reached the Postal Service office that oversees New England, she said.

“They told me they would find out what they could do. But they did not keep me in the loop,” Ruijter said. “So I don’t know what they are doing.”

She said Stamford’s Democratic registrar of voters, Ron Malloy, became concerned after the 2016 presidential election.

“He mentioned that he was shocked by the high number of late-returned ballots,” Ruijter said, so “the problem may have gone on for a longer time.”

It’s about six years, said Maureen Marion, Postal Service manager of communications for New England and New York. But it is not because of a Tuesday delivery slowdown or the 2012 closing of the Stamford mail distribution center, which was consolidated with the plant in Westchester, Marion said.

“It’s a nationwide thing,” Marion said. “First-class mail now is a two-day service. Tuesday is a lighter-volume day because the mail you get on Tuesday was sent on Saturday, when many businesses are closed and less mail is generated.”

First-class mail is decreasing by billions of pieces a year, Marion said, and the Postal Service has been repositioning plants, equipment and personnel to keep pace with the change. Closing the Stamford distribution center, for example, eliminated 350 positions and saved the Postal Service $15 million a year.

But it means the end of same-day or one-day delivery of stamped mail.

“First-class mail needs two overnights,” Marion said. “So if your absentee ballot has to be in the town clerk’s office by Tuesday, you can’t mail it any later than Friday. If you mail it after that, it’s not going to make it.”

That appears to be the case. Ruijter said many of the absentee ballots that she received Aug. 15, the day after the primary, were postmarked Aug. 13.

Other town clerks have noticed the delay, though they were not aware of the reason.

“Tuesday is a low-mail day; noticeably low. I have no idea why,” said Darien Town Clerk Donna Rajczewski. “We generally do get some absentee ballots on the Wednesday after an election, too late to be counted.”

Her office takes care to collect absentee ballots, Rajczewski said. They call the Darien post office near closing time to see whether more ballots have arrived and, if so, go there to collect them.

The same is true in New Canaan, Town Clerk Claudia Weber said. The town’s mail is distributed from Stamford’s Camp Avenue post office, and she meets with the Postal Service employees there to ensure that absentee ballots are delivered and returned in time, Weber said.

Workers in the New Canaan post office hand-carry late-arriving absentee ballots to her office so they can be counted on Election Day, Weber said.

But the mail does move more slowly, she said.

“It used to be one-day delivery. Now it’s several days. We encourage people, if they feel strongly, to overnight their absentee ballots,” Weber said. “I think some people think that if the postmark is the day of the election, the ballot counts. But it has to be in the hand of the town clerk on Election Day by 8 p.m., when the polls close.”

She hopes people get the message this Election Day, because interest has skyrocketed, Weber said. New Canaan so far has issued nearly twice the number of absentee ballots as it did in the last gubernatorial election, she said. In fact, it is approaching the number issued in the 2016 presidential contest.

The same is true in Stamford, where Malloy last week reported a record number of new voters, and Ruijter said requests for absentee ballots have poured in.

Few people have connected changes in the U.S. Postal Service to elections, Ruijter said.

“No one knew about this unintended consequence,” she said.; 203-964-2296.

“In September we had mail on Tuesdays — a regular flow. Then the first week of October, it stopped.”
Lyda Ruijter, City and Town Clerk

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