In yet another blow by the Trump administration against mail-in voting, the U.S. Postal Service is forbidding postmasters from witnessing absentee ballots as they have done in the past.
A number of states have laws that permit postal workers to witness voters’ absentee ballots rather than having to hire a notary public, but the Postal Service is now barring workers from doing that. The order came down Sept. 29 in Mississippi, the only state in the U.S. still requiring a notary’s signature — twice.
Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections for Common Cause, called the order “baffling,” saying it was “another way this administration has attempted to politicize the Postal Service by using it as a tool to suppress voting.”
After the pandemic shut down much of the nation, many states passed laws to make it easier for mail-in voting.
In an April 8 tweet, Trump called on Republicans to fight mail-in voting, calling it “tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
A day later, the postmaster general told a congressional committee that the Postal Service would lose $13 billion because of the pandemic and would run out of money in September 2020.
Two days after that, the Trump administration blocked aid to the Postal Service, and the president continued to rail against mail-in ballots. These ballots “are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters,” he later said, a “bigger problem than China or Russia.”
He picked a new postmaster general who talked of closing some mail processing facilities and reducing post office hours.
When a backlash followed, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced that he would suspend these changes until after the Nov. 3 election. But postmasters are still barred from aiding mail-in voters.
In Alaska, the change stunned Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai, who questioned the Postal Service about the change: “In past elections postal officials have served as witnesses. Rural Alaska relies heavily on postal officials as they are often sometimes the only option for a witness. ... Can you provide me with an explanation and a copy of the official postal regulation stating this mandate?”
This week, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision to waive the witness requirement in the 2020 elections, but no similar decision has come in Mississippi.
On Sept. 29, Amy L. Walden, manager at the Postal Service’s Mississippi District, emailed all postmasters in Mississippi, warning them not to witness ballots: “A Postal Service employee should not provide a witness signature in their official capacity with the Postal Service.”
A recent change in Mississippi law bars notaries from charging voters for witnessing absentee ballots, but that law won’t go into effect until 2021.
Mississippi Assistant Secretary of State Kendra James said she hopes “all notaries in the state will rise to the occasion, do the right thing and assist any voter without charge.”
Albert called a notary unnecessary when the integrity of voting can be assured through other methods. “It seems really ridiculous,” she said.
Asked why postmasters were now barred and who ordered the change, David Walton, a spokesman for the Postal Service, told MCIR that the service’s “number one priority between now and the November election is the secure, timely delivery of the nation’s Election Mail.”
He explained that “Postal Employees are prohibited from serving as witnesses in their official capacity while on duty, due in part to the potential operational impacts.”
He said employees can serve as a witness “in their personal capacity off-duty, if they so choose. This policy has not changed.”
Asked why the Postal Service had departed from its practice in previous elections, he replied, “I provided you with all the available information.”
Elaine Talbott, a 71-year-old retiree from Madison, saw the postal change take place with her own eyes.
She qualified for absentee voting because of her age and decided to take advantage of the law because she didn’t want to vote in person during a pandemic, especially since those voting weren’t required to wear masks. Staying in one place with so many people surrounding her makes it more likely she could catch COVID-19, she said. “The voting line just gives me the heebie-jeebies.”
She read Mississippi’s law about absentee voting and found out that a postmaster could witness and sign her absentee ballot application. Her application arrived Sept. 15.
The next day, she said she went to the post office in Ridgeland, where the postmaster signed the application, and she mailed it to the clerk’s office.
Her absentee ballot arrived Sept. 30. When she opened the envelope, the ballot had three pages of instructions, which mentioned that the postmaster or certain other postal employees could witness the absentee application or ballot.
Two days later, she went back to the Ridgeland post office, where she said the clerk spotted her absentee ballot and told her, “We don’t do that anymore.” When she questioned the clerk, she said the clerk muttered something about “it’s political.”
After the postmaster came to the window, she said he told her they got something from “the boss” telling them not to sign ballots. She said she asked if he meant his boss in Memphis, and he replied, “In Washington.”
She went to the post office in Madison, where she said she was told the same thing.
Raúl Macías, counsel in the Voting Rights and Elections Program at Brennan Center for Justice, said Mississippi’s restrictions on ballot witnesses “make it challenging for voters to request and return absentee ballots under normal circumstances. Under pandemic conditions, they could put voters’ health at risk.”
Mississippi Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said he has received calls from constituents in their 80s. “They said, ‘We were told we had to get this notarized, but we don’t want to leave our house. What do we do?’”
He tried to get legislation passed that would allow voters in 2020 to replace the notary requirement with an attesting witness 18 or older. The bill died in committee.
On top of that, the guidelines given to complete absentee ballots are so complicated that even notaries get confused by the instructions, Blount said. “We have the worst vote-by-mail process in the country. We’re the only state in the nation that requires both the application and the ballot to be notarized.”
The Mississippi Legislature did add COVID-19 as a reason that patients or caregivers could vote by mail, but absentee voting remains a nightmare, he said.
The lack of changes led the ACLU, its state chapter and the Mississippi Center for Justice to sue Secretary of State Michael Watson to broaden absentee voting to those with “underlying health conditions” that could make catching COVID-19 deadly. The Southern Poverty Law Center and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law filed similar litigation in federal court on behalf of some Mississippi voters, the League of Women Voters Mississippi and the Mississippi NAACP.
Caren Short, senior staff attorney for the center, said requiring a voter “to notarize both their absentee application and ballot in the middle of a pandemic is clearly unnecessary when there are already protections in place that ensure the identity of the voter. It is our hope that in the coming days Mississippi officials will recognize this and offer relief for voters so that no one has to choose between participating in our democracy and protecting their health. If not, we’ve asked a federal court to intervene.”
Talbott still has her unmarked ballot and plans to get it signed at a free drive-through notary service in Jackson on Saturday. She said Mississippi officials have made a simple process “extremely convoluted.”
The consequences of such actions are the poor don’t have the same right to vote as those with means, she said. “I have the privilege to drive and go, but the people that need most to vote by mail are being disenfranchised. That’s the bottom line.”
•Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization.