Absentee voters in Alaska’s state primary this week got an unexpected answer when they asked postal workers to witness their ballots: No.
In Alaska – like North Carolina, Wisconsin and several other states – absentee ballots must be signed by a witness who verifies that the ballot is legitimately filled out by the voter it was sent to. A ballot without a signature will not be counted. State rules allow authorized officials, including postal workers, to serve as witnesses.
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But a little-noticed Postal Service policy actually forbids on-duty USPS workers from serving as witnesses. With more voters than ever looking to cast votes by mail this year, that has come as a surprise to election officials.
Reid Magney, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Election Commission, said that due to the increase in mail-in voting in last spring’s primaries, state election officials suggested voters observing stay-at-home orders ask letter carriers to witness their ballots.
“We didn’t ask the Post Office can your people do this, or anything,” said Magney. “We thought, well, they are there – I had no idea that they had any policy on this.”
In Alaska, voters complained to state election officials that postal workers were refusing to sign as witnesses. The complaints prompted Gail Fenumiai, director of the Division of Elections to reach out to USPS last Thursday about their policy, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
Daniel Bentley, a product management specialist for the Postal Service in Washington, DC, responded to Fenumiai that day in an email exchange obtained by CNN.
“Postal Employees are prohibited from serving as witnesses in their official capacity while on duty, due in part to the potential operational impacts. The Postal Service does not prohibit an employee from serving as a witness in their personal capacity off-duty, if they so choose,” Bentley wrote.
James Boxrud, a spokesman for the Postal Service in the western United States, told the Anchorage paper, “My understanding is this is a national thing that went out. It’s not just Alaska.”
Boxrud also provided the paper with a copy of a training slide presented to clerks in July. The slide states in part, “Some state laws specifically authorize Postal Service employees to provide a witness signature on ballot envelopes. However, performing this function is not within the scope of a postal employee’s duties and is not required by the Postal Service’s regulations.”
Marti Johnson, senior public relations representative for election and political mail for USPS, further told CNN in an emailed statement that “the guidance has not changed this year.” Johnson did not elaborate on when the witnessing policy was first instituted.
Sheli DeLaney, a voter from Juneau, said she encountered the issue while attempting to mail back her absentee ballot this week.
“I live alone, I work from home most of the time, I don’t have that many people over, and time was short, so I took it to the post office. I figured that would be the most legit choice anyway, in case anyone was going to scrutinize the absentee ballots and try to discredit them,” she said in an interview with CNN on Thursday.
Delaney said workers at her local USPS office “refused to sign” her ballot. “They said they were not allowed and not much more,” Delaney said. Instead, she got someone else in line to be her witness.
North Carolina election officials also told CNN on Thursday they didn’t realize a policy on witnessing existed.
The state normally requires two witnesses but due to Covid-19 has reduced the number to one. North Carolina Board of Elections Public Information Officer Patrick Gannon told CNN on Thursday that postal workers are allowed by state law to sign as witness and were unaware that USPS did not allow this.
CNN’s Dianne Gallagher contributed to this report.