In my study of voting by mail last summer (available here), I noted that election jurisdictions which use voting by mail, or which have high levels of absentee balloting, have to establish partnerships with the US Postal Service and other large residential facilities (e.g. nursing homes, colleges and universities) to make sure that the ballots are delivered to the correct individual.
This afternoon, at a student/faculty research colloquium, I presented some of my results on early voting, and an interesting anomaly came up. It highlights the complications of ballot delivery under voting by mail systems.
Under Oregon law, it is illegal to forward a ballot. The US Postal Service is supposed to return the ballot to the election jurisdiction, along with forwarding information (if they have it).
We recognized last summer that this raised one issue: what happens if individual A has moved but has not left a forwarded address? Presumably, the USPS will deliver the ballot, and it is up to individual B to return the ballot to the postal carrier, noting that individual A is no at their residence. That seemed to us at the time to be problematic.
But what about colleges and universities, where students may have been living in dormitories but have since moved off of campus, and where mail is handled not by the US Postal Service, but by private employees?
Just as an example–not based on fact OF COURSE–let’s suppose that the mail service at a small liberal arts college did not follow the printed instructions on a ballot, and instead treated the ballot like they did all other student mail. If they had a forwarding address, they placed their own forwarding label (not the USPS “yellow” label) on the envelope with a “please forward” notation.
Are they breaking the law? Is the USPS carrier obligated to note that the ballot should not be forwarded, and if it is forwarded, is the carrier breaking the law?
Here’s another example: let’s suppose a parent received a ballot addressed to a child who is still an Oregon resident, but is attending college. This parent drops the ballot, along with all other mail, in a big envelope and sends it to his son/daughter. Is this legal?
I think in the first case, the mail service should not be forwarding the ballot, but should return it to the postal carrier with a notation about the new address (if they have it). The reason is that the student has moved to a new address, and that new address may have different offices associated with it.
The second case is more complicated. I think if the child is still living in Oregon, the parent should notify the postal carrier of the new address, for the same reasons noted previously. But if the child is out of state, the parent probably ought to tell the child to register as an absentee voter.