Letter carrier: why absentee ballots without postmarks should count

    An absentee ballots for the April 7 election. (Photo by Henry Redman)
    An absentee ballots for the April 7 election. (Photo by Henry Redman)
    Scott Van Derven, president of the Wisconsin Association of Letter Carriers (photo courtesy of Scott Van Derven).
    Scott Van Derven, president of the Wisconsin Association of Letter Carriers (photo by Lee Matz, Milwaukee Independent).

    Scott Van Derven, the president of the Wisconsin Association of Letter Carriers, was disturbed by the news that the U.S. Supreme Court had ordered that absentee ballots must be postmarked by April 7 to count in Wisconsin’s spring election.

    “I have a unique perspective — I know how postmarks work,” Van Derven says.

    “The Supreme Court adding that requirement — first of all, it’s not in the state statute, and a lot of people had mailed their ballots already. So many municipalities meter their mail, and they don’t get a postmark. So that would be a problem.”

    Metered mail, Van Derven explains, carries a mark indicating the owner of the meter and the postage paid, and therefore, unlike stamped mail, does not require an additional postmark.

    “Stamped mail runs through a cancelling machine and the date is applied — the purpose is more for cancelling stamps so they can’t be reused, to protect the revenue of the Post Office,” Van Derven explains.

    While some Wisconsin municipalities send voters self-addressed, stamped envelopes for returning absentee ballots, larger cities, including Milwaukee, use a postage meter.

    “It’s less labor-intensive, because you don’t have someone applying all those stamps,” says Van Derven. “And metered mail goes at a slightly lower rate — there’s less processing for the postal service.”

    Van Derven is particularly concerned about the possibility that election officials will not count absentee ballots that arrived on April 8 and April 9 without a postmark. 

    Those ballots have to have been mailed by Election Day, he says: “You don’t drop it in the mailbox and it shows up the same day. That cannot happen.”

    Declaration of Scott Van Derven, president of the Wisconsin State Association of Letter Carriers, on U.S. Postal Service procedures as they relate to Wisconsin's April 7, 2020, election.
    Scott Van Derven’s declaration on U.S. Postal Service procedures as they relate to Wisconsin’s April 7, 2020, election.

    Van Derven has put all of this in a signed declaration, shared with the Wisconsin Elections Commission. 

    He is hoping his professional opinion will help commissioners make the right decision about counting all those absentee ballots that don’t have a postmark.

    Commissioners deadlocked on Friday on whether to count ballots that arrived by April 8 with no postmark, with Republicans arguing that some ballots could have been sent the same day.

    In the long run, Van Derven also hopes that last Tuesday’s election debacle in Wisconsin won’t discourage people from voting absentee. 

    “I certainly still believe vote-by-mail is a perfectly viable and safe and effective way to vote,” he says. “Unfortunately, with the changing of the rules two days before the election, it might put vote-by-mail in a light where people don’t think it can work out. That’s not true.”

    He points to other states, including Colorado and Oregon, where voting by mail is the norm.

    “It works perfectly,” he says, “as long as you have enough time and a system in place.”

    Ruth Conniff
    Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.