Many people who used to pay their bills, say “happy birthday” or just keep in touch by mail now do those things online and avoid mailboxes altogether. That’s helped push theU.S. Postal Serviceto the brink of bankruptcy, and postal officials now must try to catch up with the changing times by cutting costs, which in turn means closing post offices and mail processing centers. In December, Congress agreed to a five-month moratorium on closures, but the respite expires May 15. Then California is likely to lose 15 mail processing centers, including up to five in Los Angeles County.
There is one thing, however, that more and more Californians do by U.S. mail: They vote. Mailboxes have taken the place of ballot boxes for close to half of the state’s voters in the last several elections. In the 2008 presidential election, for example, 41.6% of California voters cast their ballots by mail. In the 2009 special election, it was 62.1%. In 2010, 57.9% of ballots were mailed in for the June gubernatorial primary and 48.4% were mailed for the November general election.
The closure of mail processing centers will come three weeks before the presidential primary election day, June 5. Judging by last year’s closure of the Oxnard distribution center in Ventura County, it will now take from five to seven days, instead of from one to three days, for unmarked ballots to move the short distance from county registrar offices to voter mailboxes. It will take a similar time to get completed ballots back.
Secretary of State Debra Bowen says thousands of ballots could be delivered too late to be counted. She has a point; unlike income tax returns, which are considered timely if they are postmarked by April 15, marked ballots have to be actually received by voting day or they are not counted.
Voters, like everyone else, will eventually have to get used to the new, slower mail service, and that will mean making earlier requests for vote-by-mail ballots, voting earlier and dropping the ballots in the mailbox earlier. But shutting down mail distribution just weeks before the presidential primary would be foolish, given that many people won’t yet have gotten the word about the longer time needed for ballot turnaround.
The Postal Service, which is taking an $8.5-billion annual loss, can’t keep putting off nationwide closures expected to save $3 billion, but it can and should delay its California closures for a mere three weeks to ensure that the June election runs smoothly and that votes truly count.
In the meantime, California lawmakers should consider whether filing deadlines and other schedules and rules should be updated to reflect the newer, slower Postal Service, and Bowen and county registrars should then proceed as though the mail won’t be getting any faster between now and the Nov. 6 general election.