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Oregon elections officials meet with USPS after delays reported in some ballot returns

Oregon's primary election will take place on May 21, 2024. Ballots returned by mail will be accepted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.

Oregon’s primary election will take place on May 21, 2024. Ballots returned by mail will be accepted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Oregon elections officials met with representatives from the United States Postal Service on Thursday morning, after concerns emerged that some post offices across the state were delaying delivery of completed ballots sent by mail.

“In no uncertain terms, they have said, ‘We will fix this. This should not be happening,’” said Molly Woon, the state’s elections director. “We continue to have complete faith in the vote-by-mail system.”

While Woon acknowledged that filled-out ballots have been delayed in reaching elections offices in Lincoln, Douglas and possibly other counties, she said those delays will not impact timeliness of results in the May 21 primary election if postal officials follow through on their promise.

At issue appears to be how some post offices are processing ballots under a 5-year-old law that ensures the state — not voters — pays the tab for postage.

Under that system, most completed ballots are sent via business reply mail, a service that doesn’t require a voter to supply a stamp. Instead the state pays the postage fee.

Elections officials keep track of how many ballots they receive by mail, Woon said. But some post offices have taken the step of counting every ballot they receive.

“This has happened in the past. USPS gives conflicting guidance to some local post offices on processing the business reply mail ballots,” she said. “They are feeling like they need to count everything and document everything so that the billing can happen before they can get the clerks the ballot. That slows everything down.”

Woon said she did not know how broadly any postal delays were being felt. The Secretary of State’s Office suggested that ongoing consolidation in the postal service could be playing a part in the confusion, saying it was “making sure USPS national headquarters understands the implications of their downsizing decisions in Oregon.”

The USPS did not respond to an inquiry about the matter. Neither did elections officials in Douglas and Lincoln County.

The matter came into public view because of a Wednesday press release from House Minority Leader Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River.

“The USPS told county elections officials Wednesday that the ballots were being held because the USPS wanted a firm count on how much to bill for each ballot,” the release said.

Helfrich attempted to lay blame for the confusion at the feet of Democrats, who he accused of “meddling with election laws and failing to properly oversee ballot returns.”

In fact, the switch to state-paid ballot postage that appears to be causing delay was bipartisan. The 2019 bill that ensured voters would no longer need to use a stamp on mailed ballots was co-sponsored by then Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, and then-Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, a Republican. It was supported by members of both parties.

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