Postal Service rule change could impact rural Alaska voters

A blue USPS building with two spruce trees on either  side.
Douglas Post Office. (Rosemarie Alexander/KTOO)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The U.S. Postal Service has prohibited employees from providing witness signatures for absentee ballots while on duty, which could make voting by mail more difficult for some Alaska residents.

The nationwide rule passed earlier this year could cause problems, especially for rural residents who often rely on postal employees to serve as official witnesses, The Anchorage Daily News reported Tuesday.

Each absentee ballot in Alaska and several other states must be signed by a witness who can verify the ballot was legitimately filled out by a particular voter.

Without witness signatures, those ballots cannot be counted.

Alaska ballot instructions say a voter’s signature must be “witnessed by an authorized official or, if no official is reasonably available, by someone 18 years of age or older.”

Postal officials are listed as an example of authorized officials, but Alaska voters have said postal clerks recently informed the residents that the postal workers are now forbidden from signing ballots.

In response to complaints, Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai wrote to the postal service Thursday, saying the information “came as surprise to the state because we know in past elections postal officials have served as witnesses.”

Fenumiai requested an explanation and a copy of the updated regulation.

“Rural Alaska relies heavily on postal officials as they are often sometimes the only option for a witness,” Fenumiai wrote.

Daniel Bentley, a product management specialist for the postal service in Washington, D.C., said in a response to Fenumiai that postal employees on duty are prohibited from serving as witnesses “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 postal service spokesman for the western United States, said the rule does not only affect Alaska.

Boxrud shared a copy of a training slide presented to clerks in July that said while some states authorize postal employees to provide witness signatures for ballots, “this function is not within the scope of a postal employee’s duties and is not required by the Postal Service’s regulations.”

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