Washington's all-mail election system, already dealing with public frustration over how long it takes to count ballots, is about to face a new challenge: U.S. Postal Service cutbacks.
State elections officials say the planned closures of five mail-processing centers in Washington would require voters in rural areas to submit their ballots earlier on Election Day -- and possibly delay ballots arriving at county elections offices.
The changes would leave the state with just two centers for mail to be sorted and postmarked, in Seattle and Spokane. That would move up daily collection times in the middle of the state to give workers time to get the mail to a processing center. That, in turn, would require voters who wait until Election Day to mail their ballots to do it earlier in the day.
State law requires that ballots be postmarked by Election Day.
"We are very much concerned," said Sheryl Moss, a Secretary of State's Office employee who serves on a national committee providing input on the effects of the changes. "This will make it more difficult on the voters."
A Postal Service spokesman downplayed the effect on voting.
"We will see minimal, if any, issues, and we'll continue to work with officials in upcoming elections like we did for the just-completed general election," said the spokesman, David Rupert, noting that all mail submitted before the collection time will be postmarked on that day.
The changes, which are set to be phased in over the next two years unless Congress acts, also reduce hours at 39 individual post offices, mostly in rural areas. But local officials are particularly concerned about the processing-center closures planned in Everett, Olympia, Pasco, Wenatchee and Redmond.
Moss said the Secretary of State's Office will respond by asking voters to mail their ballots earlier and by encouraging the use of county ballot drop-boxes, which are becoming increasingly popular. The boxes are expensive to set up, however, and one of the benefits of the all-mail system is its lower cost.
Republican Kim Wyman, who won election this month to replace retiring Secretary of State Sam Reed, could not be reached for comment over the holiday weekend.
Meredith Kenny, a spokeswoman for the State Republican Party, and Benton Strong, a spokesman for the State Democratic Party, each said they would need more information before commenting.