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Groups to raise concerns about mailed ballots

Baltimore hearing to focus on mail delivery concerns for election.

A coalition of groups opposed to cuts at the U.S. Postal Service will use a hearing in Baltimore on Wednesday to question whether slower mail delivery standards approved last year could delay absentee ballots in the forthcoming election.

Under pressure to trim costs and close mail processing centers, the Postal Service relaxed standards early last year — no longer delivering local first-class mail the next day, for instance. Advocates say that the problem is more extensive than a single-day delay and that slow delivery has already affected private elections.

There is no indication that mail delivery has played a role in any of the presidential primaries this year, and the concerns being raised by the group are grounded more in the potential for delayed results in an exceedingly tight contest than in ballots not being counted.

A Washington-based group called the Grand Alliance to Save our Public Postal Service, which started as an effort of postal unions but now includes civil rights, religious and environmental organizations, will conduct hearings across the country on the issue. The first will take place at Coppin State University on Wednesday.

"What I've noticed in the past year is that the delivery times have slipped significantly," said John L. Seibel, president of a Bethesda-based company called TrueBallot, which runs elections for unions, professional associations and Native American tribes. "It's gone from three days to a week each way."

Maryland sent out 24,773 absentee ballots in the 2012 primary election and received 19,760 in return, according to state data. Two years later, the general election contest for state's 6th Congressional District was not decided until an initial count of absentee ballots found Democrat Rep. John Delaney had won.

This year Maryland voters have until April 19 to request an absentee ballot to be delivered by mail, but they will have additional time to pick up a ballot up in person or request one to be delivered electronically. Ballots returned by mail must be postmarked by the day of the April 26 primary election and received by May 6.

Seibel said the problem is more complex than the relatively minor delay in mailing a ballot to a voter. For instance, ballots mailed to an incorrect address have taken nearly two weeks to be returned as not delivered, he said. That means companies like his organizing private elections sometimes are not aware that they must resend a ballot until the deadline for the election has drawn near.

The Postal Service made a number of standards changes in early 2015, such as eliminating single-piece overnight first-class mail and shifting a portion of mail from a 2-day standard to a 3-day standard. An inspector general's report last summer found that the agency was not hitting its more relaxed targets.

Sue Brennan, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service, said officials do not anticipate any issues with mailed ballots.

"Voters can rely upon the mail as a reliable method of participating in the political process," Brennan said in a statement. "Every election cycle, the Postal Service works with state, local and federal election officials to ensure the timely delivery of election mail."

The agency laid out an ambitious plan in 2010 for saving billions of dollars, including the idea of eliminating Saturday mail delivery. The hearings come after Congress has failed to advance that or any overhaul of the Postal Service.

"The pressure on the post office is really coming from the outside; it's coming from those who want to profit off of mail delivery," said the Rev. Steven Martin, who works for the National Council of Churches, a member of the postal coalition. "The Postal Service is an essential part of what it means to be an American."

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who has made an issue of postal closures for years, and Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., a longtime Baltimore civil rights advocate, will also attend the hearing.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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