[Image courtesy of USPS via Twitter]

This week’s electionlineWeekly focuses on a new report recommending the U.S. Postal Service do more to encourage vote-by-mail and the USPS’ response. As always, Mindy Moretti has the story:

The U.S. Postal Service is the largest self-funded agency of the U.S. government and is supported entirely by revenue from postage and products.

Because of that, unlike most federal agencies that are always looking for ways to cut costs, the Postal Service is also always looking for ways to boost revenue.

Therefore, with the increasing popularity of vote-by-mail, the Office of the Inspector General of the USPS (USPSOIG) set out to evaluate voting methods to identify opportunities to increase voting by mail and therefore revenues for an agency that has struggled under budget constraints and the changing mailing habits of Americans.

Earlier this month the USPSOIG released a report recommending that the agency develop a plan to encourage vote-by-mail not only as a revenue booster for the agency, but also to boost voter turnout.

The Postal Service response to the OIG report? A polite thanks, but no thanks.

“The Postal Service disagrees with the recommendations presented by the OIG in its report. As stated above, the Postal Service feels the best optimization of its resources would be to stay focused on high value items such as political mail and not expend resources on election mail which will grow without involvement,” Cliff Rucker, vice president of sales for USPS wrote in his response to the report.

The performance audit, which was self-initiated by the USPSOIG, was conducted from February through August of 2015. The review included the following scope and methodology:

  • Reviewed Postal Service policies, procedures and guidance related to the roles, responsibilities, and structure of the Sales division, including staffing and election mail strategies;
  • Reviewed fiscal year 2013 and 2014 election mail data, including, but not limited to, potential financial effects, voter challenges to accessibility, observation data on wait times, and political and election mail strategies;
  • Observed operations and interviewed state and county election officials and Postal Service sales, marketing and election mail coordinators in four states;
  • Reviewed Postal Service Delivering Results, Innovation, Value and Efficiency Initiative 16, Customer Growth & Retention, and Initiative 42, Marketing New and Existing Products and Services; and
  • Reviewed existing industry studies and interviewed leading experts in the field of election mail.

The report states that the Postal Service has not taken full advantage of the opportunities of the growing popularity of vote-by-mail because it has focused its marketing and sales efforts on the larger, more lucrative political mail.

The report estimates that if the USPS encouraged vote-by-mail it could increase revenue by $2 million per year and “…support the Postal Service’s obligation to bind the nation together.”

The response from the USPS does not mean, however, that the agency takes lightly vote-by-mail and the role it can play in the democratic process.

“The Postal Service does not have a negative response to voting by mail. As the report states, the Postal Service already facilitates election mail performance in several ways…” said Sarah Ninivaggi, public relations representative for the USPS.

According to Ninivaggi, the Postal Service facilitates election mail by providing services such as mailpiece design and a distinct mail tag for trays and sacks that contain ballot mail so it is more visible in the mailstream. The Postal Service also designates certain employees as election mail coordinators to work with election officials and mail service providers to facilitate communication.

Tammy Patrick, senior advisor to the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Democracy Project, agrees with management’s less-than-enthusiastic response to the report.

“I think that the business of growing vote-by-mail as a marketing strategy and revenue generator is a very different articulation than what most election administrators are used to hearing or articulating themselves,” Patrick said. “The recommendations themselves would perhaps provide some resources for effective design materials and the discussion of posting VBM options in the post offices themselves, but I honestly don’t see where a national marketing strategy would be particularly helpful.”

Patrick said management’s rejection of the recommendation and plans to instead continue to focus on the operational side of getting ballots delivered and tracked is critical right now as the agency consolidates its core functions and processes. Those efforts are likely to be increasingly important given ongoing service cuts and processing center closures, which have resulted in longer transit times for ballots as well as an uptick in stories like the nearly 1,300 Utah ballots that arrived last week the day after Election Day because a postal employee had neglected to alert staff to the need for immediate delivery.

“We need to ensure that ballots are visible throughout the mail stream and are being processed within the delivery standards,” Patrick said. “VBM continues to grow without the assistance of the USPS and we need to be certain that the underlying support mechanisms are functioning properly.”

Patrick is currently working with the USPS to improve the ballot-tracking process and improve address management and list maintenance — a critical role USPS plays in our democracy.

“There are many opportunities to improve this partnership and I remain optimistic that we will continue to make improvements that benefit both the voter and election administration,” Patrick said.

This story is significant – not because of the USPS’ resistance to a VBM marketing push, but because of the indications that the agency takes (or is being encouraged to take) seriously the ballots already in the system. The mail is an increasingly important part of ballot return and delivery nationwide, and the USPS must stay focused on ensuring that every single one of those items gets to their destination on time and intact. As Tammy Patrick suggests, VBM is growing tremendously even without a marketing push – and the USPS needs to make sure all of that mail goes through.

Thanks as always to Mindy for the story – and thanks also to Tammy who, among all her other hats, is the point person for the postal/elections dialogue and a voice for election officials nationwide. Here’s hoping the USPS can deliver on its existing mission – and especially on eliminating stories like the one that emerged in Utah last week.

Can they do it? Stay tuned …