Washington election officials are scrambling to avoid panic ahead of November's election after state voters started getting postcards Friday from the U.S. Postal Service with potentially misleading information on mail-in voting.
The mailing reminds voters who intend to cast their ballots by mail to "plan ahead" and "request your mail-in ballot ... at least 15 days before Election Day."
But in Washington and several other states, mail-in ballots are sent to all registered voters automatically. The mailers also tell voters to add stamps to their ballot-return envelopes if needed, but those envelopes have pre-paid postage in Washington.
State election officials -- who have already been getting calls from voters requesting absentee ballots -- worry the postcards will confuse Washingtonians who are already concerned about voting by mail amid delays at the USPS. Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said the postcards could also add to the muddled messaging voters are getting as the nation gears up for an election that will see an unprecedented level of mail-in voting due to COVID-19.
"My concern is that two of those five tips really are not applicable to the state of Washington," Dalton said, "and so I'm concerned about the confusion that's going to cause for our voters here."
Washington State Director of Elections Lori Augino sent a letter to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy late Friday, reminding the USPS chief that Washington's county auditors will automatically mail ballots to all registered voters at least 18 days before Election Day.
"We appreciate the effort to encourage voters to plan ahead," Augino wrote to DeJoy, "but rules and requirements for voting by mail vary state by state. States whose residents have already received the postcard have been inundated by calls from confused voters because the recommendations do not align with their state law."
DeJoy, a former logistics executive and major GOP donor, has been the subject of controversy because of his lack of experience as a postal worker and changes at the USPS since he took over the top job in June.
Augino said she learned about the postcards Thursday from her counterpart in Oregon, another vote-by-mail state, and confirmed that residents in southwest Washington had begun to receive them on Friday.
"Counties where the postcards were already received, like Clark County, are already having their phones begin to ring from concerned voters," Augino said, "and I expect that to be much more widespread by Monday."
Idahoans who want to vote by mail, however, do need to request absentee ballots by Oct. 23 and must register to vote by Oct. 9. In Idaho, absentee ballots must be received on or before Nov. 3 in order to be counted, while in Washington ballots will be counted as long as they are postmarked or left in an official ballot drop box by Election Day.
Ten states and the District of Columbia will automatically send mail-in ballots to all registered voters this year. In one of those states, Colorado, Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold filed a lawsuit Saturday against the Postal Service for what she called "misinformation" in the postcards.
Augino and Dalton said they had reached out to local USPS contacts, who had been unaware of the postcards and said it was too late to stop them from being sent to addresses throughout Washington. A spokeswoman for the Washington Secretary of State's office, which has a representative on the Washington State Postal Taskforce, said that committee of USPS and election officials never discussed the postcard.
USPS spokesman David Rupert said the postcards -- which note that rules vary by state -- are meant to provide "general, all-purpose guidance on the use of the mail, and not guidance on state election rules."
"The mail-piece -- which has already been delivered to most households and will reach every American residential mailing and P.O. Box address in the coming week -- contains a single set of simple recommendations for voters throughout the nation, regardless of where they live and where they vote," Rupert wrote in an email. "At the same time, we are aware that each state has its own specific rules, deadlines and requirements, and the mail-piece acknowledges that fact."
"We appreciate that somebody at the U.S. Postal Service was trying to help," Dalton said, "but unfortunately the message, in being generic for an entire nation, doesn't really work."
Voters in Washington can register to vote or confirm that their address is correct at VoteWA.gov.