Postal closing would disrupt by-mail elections
Closing a mail-sorting center in Tucson would not just delay mail delivery here, but would disrupt local elections conducted by mail, and nearly disenfranchise voters on the Tohono O'odham Nation, writes Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez in a letter sent to U.S. Postal Service authorities last week (below).
Rodriguez sent another letter outlining her concerns to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department on Friday.
RE: Closing of Regional Mail Processing Plants
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am the duly elected Recorder for Pima County, Arizona. I am writing to provide information to you in making the decision as to Whether or not to consolidate and close the mail processing plant in Tucson, Arizona. I believe that the closure of the Tucson plant will have a significant impact on elections and may well have the effect of disenfranchisiug voters in mral areas and Native American voters throughout the State of Arizona.
First, I would note that I had staff present during the public meeting that was held in Tucson on December 28, 2011. However, the format of the presentation and the very limited time for public comment prevented them from conveying my thoughts on this
matter at this public meeting. I find it difficult to believe that only a few minutes of speaking time was allocated for public comment at a meeting when such a significant issue was being addressed. Those in attendance should have been accorded proper time to speak.
The Pima County Recorder’s Office is one of the larger customers of postal services in Pima County. We average more than 600,000 pieces of mail sent from our offices each year. We will be mailing more than 1,000,000 pieces of mail in 2012. Our
annual postal expenditures exceed $500,000. All of our mail is processed through the main Tucson postal plant located on Cherrybell Stravenue. In addition to processing the mail from my office, that plant also processes mail from other counties in Arizona, particularly Santa Cruz and Cochise Counties.
For the past 15 years we have seen significant increases in voters preferring to cast their ballots by mail. In many of the Arizona Counties, more voters cast their ballot by mail than travel to the polls on Election Day. In Pima County, more than 63% of all votes cast during the November 2010 election cycle were voted by mail. There are five incorporated cities and towns in Pima County. Four of those five jurisdictions conduct all of their elections entirely by mail. During the November 8, 2011 election, four school districts conducted their elections entirely by mail. Between the school districts and the City of Tucson, more than 300,000 ballots were processed through the Cherrybell plant in October and early November 2011. This figure does not include the ballots that were voted and returned. In major elections, approximately 90% of all voters who receive a ballot by mail return that voted ballot using the postal system. In addition to ballots, my office sends voter identification cards, voter registration forms and address update letters and many of those generate return mail from the voters.
In 2007, the Arizona State Legislature enacted a law creating the Permanent Early
Voting List (PEVL) that allows a voter to make one single request that all future election ballots be sent to them automatically by mail. More than 246,000 Pima County voters have already enrolled on PEVL and the list grows each month. Throughout Arizona, more than 1,464,000 voters are currently enrolled on PEVL.
During the public meeting held in Tucson, it was stated that the Phoenix mail processing plant had the capacity to process all mail in Arizona and could accommodate up to 3,000,000 pieces of mail a day. It was stated that the total mail processed in Arizona was just below that figure currently. I have some serious concerns with that purported claim. Both of the Recorders in Maricopa County and Pima County use the same vendor to assemble and mail ballots for early voters. That vendor is located just a few blocks from the main Phoenix postal plant. In 2010, the postal plant requested that our vendor not mail all Maricopa and Pima ballots the saine time at the Phoenix facility since they could not handle the large voluine of ballots in one day. As a result, the ballots that are sent to Pima County voters are transported from Phoenix to the Tucson Cherrybell plant for processing.
The Arizona election law requires that the ballots for all voters on PEVL must be mailed on the first day of early voting. The first day of early voting is 26 days prior to Election Day. What that means is that all 15 counties in Arizona must deliver all of the PEVL ballots to the post office on the 26th day prior to the election. There are four election days each year in Arizona. While some elections involve smaller jurisdictions like school districts and fire districts, some elections involve every registered voter. The elections scheduled for August and November 2012 are not only statewide elections, but involve races for all members ofthe United States House of Representatives, one seat in the United States Senate and the President of the United States in addition to every member ofthe Arizona Legislature and almost every county officer in the state. With the popularity of PEVL and early voting, we know that the counties in Arizona will be mailing more than 1,000,000 ballots to voters on August 2, 2012 for the Primary Election and more than 1,465,000 ballots on October 11, 2012 for the General Election.
The large mailings will cause a significant mail processing tsunami through the Phoenix processing plant if that is the only Arizona processing plant in operation on those dates. The ballots would be in addition to the normal statewide mail to go through that plant on a daily basis. Since the plant proposed to remain open is the same plant that has already advised Maricopa and Pima County that it cannot handle processing our combined ballots at one time, it is highly doubtful it can handle all 15 counties ballots on the same day.
Sorne of the other proposals being discussed is to eliminate Saturday delivery of mail and to reduce ñrst class processing from one day to either two or three days. The combination of these changes along with the consolidation to only one mail processing plant in Arizona will further impact voting rights of Arizona residents. The 26th day prior to an election always falls on a Thursday. Ballots may not be mailed prior to that Thursday under Arizona law. Since the ballot mailings would push the Phoenix plant past its operating capacity, We would expect it to take a minimum of two to three days for the ballots to be processed and distributed. That means the ballots would not be ready for delivery to metropolitan postal customers until Monday or Tuesday of the week following deposit with the post office. The delay would be even greater in the rural areas.
Overwhelmingly, the vast majority of voters who receive their ballot in the mail elect to return the ballot by mail. Most of the counties pay the return postage on these ballots using a business reply account. Business reply processing adds a minimum of one day of additional processing before the ballots are available for delivery to the respective Recorder’s Offices. Under Arizona law, if a mailed ballot is not in the physical possession of the Recorder’s Office by 7:00 p.m. on election night it cannot be counted. My office currently recommends that all voters mail their voted ballot no later than the Friday prior to Election Day to ensure it will be received in our office by the deadline.
With the postal system changes being considered we can expect that there will be at least two additional days needed for processing the voted ballots caused by the transportation delays to and from Phoenix from all of the rural areas in Pima County. We would therefore have to recommend that ballots be mailed no later than the Wednesday before the election (six days prior to Election Day). The net affect ofthe postal changes will be to reduce the early voting period from 26 days to less than three weeks for voters living in metropolitan areas.
Much of the focus of the public meeting was on the impact to Tucson. Often times when decisions are being made using only economic considerations and statistics, management will only consider the largest volumes and the largest statistics. Pima County is far more than just Tucson. Pima County is the ñfteenth largest county in the United States. Geographically, more than haIf of Pima County is a rural area. In fact, 42% of the land area in Pima County consists ofthe Tohono O’odham Nation. Currently, the Postal Service does not provide home delivery to any of the residents of the Tohono O'odham Nation. Instead, the USPS operates a single post office located in Sells, Arizona.
Residents of the nation are required to have Post Office boxes to receive mail and since the facility is so small, most of the boxes are shared by several different people. Many ofthe nation’s residents do not live or work in Sells and several ofthe villages are 50 to 60 miles from Sells and many require travel down unpaved roads. As a result, many ofthe members of the Tohono O’odham nation do not check their post office box for mail on a daily basis.
If the postal service consolidates to one plant, eliminates Saturday mail and delays first class mail, we would expect that the mail directed to the Sells post office boxes would be delayed so that it is not received in Sells until Tuesday or Wednesday of the week following our mailing date. Since the Tohono O’odham residents do not check their boxes daily, there would be a further delay in the receipt of the ballots, probably to the weekend. The nation residents would most likely take their ballots to their homes to vote them just like voters who receive their mail in post office boxes in the metropolitan areas. However, the ballots cannot be mailed by the Tohono O’odham nation residents until their next trip to Sells since the USPS does not offer mail pickup service in the other villages. Add to that the delay in processing returned mail through the single Phoenix plant and the end result is that the early voting period for the Tohono O’odham voters would be shortened from 26 days to less than 10 in order to ensure the ballot is received back in time to meet the statutory deadline for tabulation. The impact of these changes would be far greater for the Native American voters than for other voters in Arizona.
The issue with the Tohono O’odham Nation is not unique to Pima County. There are vast Native American tribal lands in most of the 15 Arizona Counties and in many of the counties the lands are rural. The postal service does not offer home delivery to most of those areas so the same impact of a reduced early voting period would occur in each
Pima County and all of Arizona are covered by Section 5 of the National Voter Registration Act. That federal statute requires that state and county officials afñrniatively establish that any change in voting procedures or voting activities will have no discriminatory or disparate impact on the voting rights of Native Arnencans or other minority voters. There is no question that the changes proposed by the postal service will impact Native American voters far more extensively than the voters in the metropolitan areas. The impact of shortening the early voting period to less than two weeks for Native American voters will be so great that l am notifying the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division of this situation of the possibility of the USPS decide to consolidate to one single Arizona mail processing plant for ballots. This proposed closure will impact all voters in Arizona but especially Native American voters in Arizona.
One common cost savings idea in trying to make services more efficient is to repeatedly consolidate operations in order to increase equipment use until the capacity of hardware is reached as an effort to increase efficiency. In the information provided to my office, it was reported that more than $14,000,000 could he saved each year by closing the Cherrybell plant. Included in that figure was more than $4,000,000 in mail processing savings. I would note that the mail processed at Cherrybell would not go away, it would simply be relocated. Therefore, the mail processing savings would end up as an additional cost to the Phoenix plant. In addition, the increased use of the Phoenix plant will result in increased wear and tear on machinery and increased repair and maintenance costs. No information was provided to us as to those expected increases to determine whether or not there is an overall savings from the consolidation.
The report also identified an expected annual transportation savings of $826,000 from the Cherrybell closure. However, there clearly would be increased transportation expenses caused by transporting the mail back and forth between Tucson and Phoenix.
No information was provided as to those projected additional costs. Again, these increases need to be considered as part ofthe overall determination.
One ofthe bigger risks in consolidation is to end up with a single location with no backup facility. In the election arena, having no backup is not only unacceptable it is a violation of state law. Each election office is required to develop contingency plans for any number of potential problems that might occur during elections and to have backups available for each piece of hardware and each software program. Simple problems beyond our control can cause devastating results in elections. For example, Arizona operates an online voter registration system through the Arizona Department of Transportation website. The online site is very popular with voters. However, on two occasions, the site has been down on the last day to register to vote prior to an election. One outage was caused by an out-ofstate vendor’s equipment failure. The other was the result of a storm-caused power outage in Phoenix. The USPS plan to attempt to operate the Phoenix processing plant at or near capacity on a daily basis with no alternate facility available for hundreds of miles runs the risk of significant system delays in the event of power or equipment failures. It should be anticipated that failures would occur during peak processing days such as while the USPS is processing the early ballots from the 15 counties. This would further irnpact elections.
I recognize that the postal service is in a serious financial situation. As was clearly discussed at the public meeting in Tucson, a large portion of that crisis has been caused by the Congressional budget deñcits by prepaying for retiree medical benefits decades in advance and other congressional limitations imposed on the USPS.
While I do not envy you the task of trying to find ways to reduce your operations deficit, you must consider the impact to the right to vote in Arizona in addition to all other factors being considered in this decision. I would encourage you to leave Tucson processing plant open along with the Phoenix plant so at least one other mail processing plant in Arizona is in operation rather than closing all ofthe other plants.