Many absentee applications not received in time

COLUMBIANA –Missed deadlines by voters, established deadlines that are unreasonable in some cases and apparent delays in mail delivery are all to blame for absentee ballots that do not count, according to Shelby County’s absentee election manager.

Circuit Clerk Mary Harris said her office has received many absentee applications and ballots past legal deadlines.

The deadline was Nov. 3 for Harris’ office, which is responsible for absentee voting, to receive an application for an absentee ballot for the Nov. 8 general election.

Once an application is received to verify that a voter has a legitimate reason for voting absentee—including being out of the county on Election Day, physically unable to visit a polling place, conflicting work schedule, military members stationed overseas or college students living in a different location—Harris’ office mails an absentee ballot, which must be returned to the circuit clerk by Election Day.

More than 4,200 absentee applications have been processed, Harris said.

Harris said she received 67 applications on Nov. 4, 17 applications on Nov. 5 and 112 applications on Nov. 7—all of which missed the deadline.

In many cases, voters simply waited too late to submit their applications or ballots.

However, Harris said she has noticed in recent elections that the USPS turnaround time for election-related mail has slowed.

For example, of the 112 applications received on Nov. 7, 97 of them were postmarked in the Birmingham metro area on Oct. 31, a point at which residents may have believed there applications would be received by Nov. 3.

Strangely, in the same stack of applications received on Nov. 7, at least one was postmarked on Nov. 3 in Provo, Utah.

“I don’t know where these have been since Oct. 31; all I know is I didn’t get them until [Nov. 7],” Harris said while holding the stack of late applications.

Harris said she first noticed postal delays during the March 1 primary election.

Out of 875 ballots mailed for the primary, 70 were delivered after the election.

“I felt like that was a large number, and I asked my fellow clerks if they had the same problem and they had,” Harris said.

Harris said a representative of the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office addressed circuit clerks about the matter at the Alabama Circuit Clerks Association conference in July, and Harris spoke with a Washington, D.C.-based representative of USPS.

“They assured me they would look into it,” she said.

Shelby County’s circuit clerk also mailed a letter to primary election absentee voters along with their ballots, encouraging them to return their ballots in a timely fashion.

The letter also included a graphic pulled from the USPS website that details its delivery standards (defined as delivery in 2-5 days for most First-Class Mail and 3-10 days for Standard Mail).

But based on those standards, residents who meet the deadline for submitting an absentee application would still not be guaranteed to have their vote counted.

If Harris’ office received an absentee application from an out-of-state voter on Nov. 3, for example, the person might not receive the actual ballot until well after Election Day.

“You do it anyway,” Harris said about mailing ballots even when it is obvious the voter will not be able to return it in time.

Harris ensured Shelby County voters that her office works diligently to count all absentee ballots received by the deadlines.

Late nights and weekend work are common for elections, and the circuit clerk mails a courtesy letter to those whose absentee applications are received late, notifying them that they will not be able to vote absentee in case they can make an effort to visit the polls on Election Day.

Such notice is not required by law.

“I feel strongly about if people know not to expect the absentee ballot, they might make that effort to go to the polls,” Harris said. “We work long hours in an effort to make sure everybody’s ballot that comes in by the deadline is processed.”