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Garamendi, Bowen decry danger to mail-in ballots

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, joined California Secretary of State Debra Bowen to testify to the state Legislature today about the danger that some impending U.S. Postal Service facility closures pose to the integrity of California’s vote.

As I reported last month, Bowen contends the Postal Service’s proposed closure of around a dozen mail processing centers in California as part of a national restructuring could delay hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots from arriving at registrars across the state in time to be counted.

She and Garamendi took their concerns to a joint oversight hearing of the state Senate Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments and the Assembly Committee on Elections and Redistricting.

“Don’t radically alter mail delivery expectations in a year that could very well set vote-by-mail records in California. Don’t close down these centers in the lead up to a presidential election, giving voters, elections officials, and postal workers insufficient time to work out the kinks,” Garamendi testified at the hearing. “Don’t disenfranchise tens of thousands of Californians who just want their voices heard. Give us six more months to get through this election, and after six months, once the chaos of the election settles down, we’ll have enough time to make the best of a bad situation. Democracy is too important to penny pinch.”

Garamendi also sent a letter today to the chairman and ranking members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and its Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and Labor Policy urging their support for Congressional action to prevent mail processing center closures.

“We are a nation that takes voting rights seriously. We are a nation that believes democracy is worth paying for. I oppose the closing of these facilities because they help make representative democracy possible,” Garamendi wrote in the letter. “I hope you’ll join me in preventing voter disenfranchisement by using the powers of this Committee and the United States Congress to prevent further mail processing center closures until after the November 2012 elections.”

A mail-in ballot – which state law says a voter can request up until seven days before the election – must be received by the voter’s county election office no later than 8 p.m. on the day of the election; any received after that aren’t counted. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, about 26,000 ballots arrived too late to be counted in California’s November 2010 general election.

Last year, Bowen has said, the three processing-center closures – in Salinas, Marysville and Oxnard – clearly affected local elections in Monterey and Ventura counties: The time it took to deliver outbound and receive inbound vote-by-mail ballots went from one to three days, to five to seven.

Postal Service spokesman Augustine Ruiz last month said the agency will announce by mid-May which centers it plans to close, but has not decided when the closures would take effect. Election mail “would be affected by the proposed service changes,” he acknowledged.

“However, the Postal Service, as always as in elections past, will be working with elected officials and their mailers in the coming months to ensure their mail is received and delivered in adequate time to respond,” Ruiz said. While he couldn’t advise voters how late they can wait to put their ballots in the mail, he said they should still arrive in time to be counted if the Postal Service processing center receives them the day before the election.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.