Postal Service urges Utahns to vote early to avoid problems, while county clerks express confidence

President Donald Trump tweeted this week that a move by Nevada to vote by mail “made it impossible for Republicans to win the state” because the “Post Office could never handle the Traffic of Mail-In Votes without preparation.”

Congressional Democrats are attacking changes made by Trump’s new postmaster general — including eliminating overtime and ordering that mail be kept until the next day if distribution centers are running late — that are creating delivery delays that could prevent returning ballots in time to be counted. And that was before that postmaster general announced major leadership changes Friday.

House Democratic leaders have said they will make reversal of the rules causing mail slowdowns part of the next coronavirus relief package.

With all that national drama, will changes with the Postal Service impact Utah’s vote-by-mail election? Officials in Utah don’t think so. They say years-old partnerships with the Postal Service should avoid any serious problems — but they are watching developments.

In a big change, though, the Postal Service now urges Utah voters to send in ballots at least a week before Election Day to avoid potential problems.

“The Postal Service recommends that domestic, nonmilitary voters mail their ballots at least one week prior to their state’s due date to allow for timely receipt by election officials,” the Postal Service said in a statement replying to questions from The Salt Lake Tribune.

Justin Lee, the state elections director, said, “Postal Service delivery times have come up the last several years as we’ve moved to vote by mail and as the Postal Service in some ways has gotten slower.”

But he said his office just talked with Utah postal leaders, which calmed concerns.

He said postal workers are accustomed to handling by-mail voting here and long ago developed systems to give priority to ballots over other types of mail. “So we’re not particularly concerned that we’re going to see a big issue here in Utah.”

County clerks generally agree.

Republican Utah County Clerk-Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner said her county has previously had problems with the Postal Service but she blamed that on her elected predecessor. “[He] just kind of dropped mail on them and expected that they know what to do with it.”

With new partnerships, she said, her office, like other county clerks in Utah, lets the Postal Service know when ballots are coming. Elections staff pick up returned ballots at the post offices, reducing return time and work by mail carriers. And the Postal Service gives ballots priority over business and many other types of mail.

“It’s really a good partnership,” Gardner said. “I don’t have the same concerns that I would if I was, for example, like New York and was just doing expanded absentee voting.”

“The Postal Service has been phenomenal to work with locally,” said Davis County Clerk-Auditor Curtis Koch, a Republican. “They understand the importance of all mail, but in particular when it comes to a person’s constitutional right to cast a ballot, we’ve seen them be very responsive.”

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, a Democrat, said she’s seen maybe fewer than a dozen complaints in recent years when tracking by vendors show that ballots were handed off to the Postal Service, but voters said they never received them.

“When you consider the hundreds of thousands of ballots that were sent out, that’s pretty good,” she said. Sometimes people who say they didn’t receive a ballot actually didn’t realize another family member picked it up and put it in an expected place, she added, or perhaps sometimes the ballot was placed inside ads or junk mail and discarded.

Still, concerns about mail service “is one reason we have some extra time built in” to Utah’s system, Lee said. Ballots are mailed out three weeks in advance to allow people to raise concerns if they don’t receive them or take other steps to vote at an in-person voting center.

Lee said another advantage that Utah has over some states is “that you can postmark the ballot the day before Election Day and it will be valid if it’s received up until the day before the canvass,” usually two weeks after the election.

“Some other states have to have the ballot received the Friday or even the Monday after the election,” he said. “So, because of that shorter window, delivery times are more of a concern in some other states.”

For the recent June 30 primary election, Utah changed rules to accept ballots postmarked on Election Day itself — and extended the canvass to allow late counting from the normal 14 days to 21. An expected upcoming special session of the Legislature may address whether to repeat those extra steps for the Nov. 3 general election.

Koch said his Davis County office usually encourages people to mail ballots the Friday before the election. “The reason we do that is because not a lot of folks understand the difference between a postmark date, which the statute calls for, and a mail date.” Now, of course, the Postal Service is encouraging all voters to mail in ballots at least a week early to avoid any problems.

Swensen said Salt Lake County has received “less than a handful” of complaints through the years from people who say they sent in their completed ballot, but reported that online tracking (that shows voters when their ballot is received) showed it never arrived.

She said investigation showed some were in mailboxes that for some reason had not been thoroughly emptied. “We’re going to bring that up, of course, as one of the issues to make sure that those boxes are cleaned out thoroughly so that they get them back to us.”

The one concern Swensen said she has is “if they do try to make cuts to the post office and do it intentionally so that they couldn’t perform their job. That would be a real concern.”

The statement from the Western area of the Postal Service to The Tribune vowed that it will work hard to ensure on-time delivery of election materials.

“The Postal Service is committed to delivering election mail in a timely manner,” it said. “We provide election officials who are mindful of our operational standards with a secure, efficient and effective means to enable citizens to participate in elections.”

As postal officials have done in Utah, the statement said, they are reaching out elsewhere to create partnerships with election officials “so that they can make informed decisions and educate the public about what they can expect when using the mail to vote.”

New Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump fundraiser and ally, also pledged during a Postal Service board of governors meeting Friday that “despite any assertions to the contrary, we are not slowing down election mail or any other mail. Instead, we continue to employ a robust and proven process to ensure proper handling of all election mail.”

Editor’s note This story was supported with a grant from Solutions Journalism.