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Postal Service braces for mail-in ballot issues

Postal workers found three tubs of uncounted absentee ballots the day after the Wisconsin primary. Some Ohioans did not receive their ballots in time for the election because of mail delays. And in Dallas, absentee ballots some voters sent to the county were returned just days before Election Day, with no explanation.

Problems caused by a spike in absentee voting during this year’s primaries are serving as potential warning signs for the U.S. Postal Service, which is bracing for an expected onslaught of mail-in ballots this fall as states and cities push alternatives to in-person voting because of the pandemic.

The concern extends to local elections offices that may be unaccustomed to aspects of the mail, such as the time it takes for parcels to reach their destinations and how to design their ballots to meet postal standards.

So the Postal Service is regularly sending advice and checklists to thousands of elections officials. Local elections offices are hiring temporary workers to process absentee ballots, and some local elections boards are adding options for voters to do curbside drop-offs of their mail ballots on Election Day.

The Postal Service is also recommending that voters request their ballots at least 15 days before Election Day and mail their completed ballots at least one week before the due date.

“Voters: We all have the power to make it better in November,” said Tammy Patrick, elections expert and senior adviser to the Democracy Fund, a bipartisan group. “Just because you can [wait until] the deadline doesn’t mean you should.”

In a statement to The Washington Post, the Postal Service said it was working closely with state and local elections officials to head off problems in the fall.

“As we anticipate that many voters may choose to use the mail to participate in the upcoming elections due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are conducting ... outreach with state, county and local election officials and Secretaries of State so that they can make informed decisions and educate the public about what they can expect when using the mail to vote,” the statement said.

The efforts come as elections officials are anticipating a high turnout in November as a result of the presidential election, along with a dramatic increase in voters who choose to mail their ballot instead of risking exposure to the novel coronavirus at polling places.

The expected surge in mail ballots has put a spotlight on the Postal Service, already under scrutiny because of President Donald Trump, who has attacked it as a “joke” and made unfounded claims that mail-in voting is susceptible to widespread fraud.

The attention has been intensified by a partisan battle over a potential federal bailout of the agency and the recent appointment of a top Trump donor, Louis DeJoy, as postmaster general. DeJoy announced cost-cutting changes in a Monday memo, including slowing mail delivery.

In addition, Ronald Stroman, the deputy postmaster general widely credited with improving relationships with elections officials in recent years, resigned from his position in June, raising concerns about who will take over the role under the new postmaster general and whether that person will keep the same emphasis.

“We are concerned, because [the Postal Service] shouldn’t be political,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union. “Here’s a new postmaster general, and by the way, he just happens to be a megadonor of President Trump. Certainly, on the surface, there’s a real worry about cronyism and patronage and whether someone is being put into place to carry out an agenda. We hope that’s not the case.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Another looming concern for November is the financial status of the Postal Service, which faced significant financial troubles for decades. While the surge in package deliveries during the pandemic has boosted revenue, union officials say the uptick likely is temporary.

Congress increased the Postal Service’s borrowing authority under the coronavirus relief Cares Act, allowing it to have enough money to operate until at least May 2021, according to a June report from the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, comprising 21 offices of the Inspector General. But the agency suffers from major debt, and the increased borrowing authority may lead to deeper financial concerns, according to the report.

Unions and voting-rights advocates are urging the Senate to approve an emergency $25 billion to the Postal Service to make up for lost revenue related to the coronavirus.

But the Trump administration has threatened to block the spending, and Senate Republicans have rejected large portions of the House Democrats-led legislation.

Wendy Fields, executive director of voting-rights group Democracy Initiative, said the additional funding would not only help the Postal Service but also thousands of elections officials who rely on the agency: “This is about an investment in the entire election process.”

The goal is to avoid messes like the ones that unfolded earlier this year in multiple states.

The day after the primary election in Wisconsin, postal workers at a processing center found about 1,600 ballots that were never delivered to the communities around Appleton and Oshkosh, according to a Wisconsin Elections Commission report on absentee voting in the April primary.

“The enormous volume of absentee requests for the April 2020 election magnified the effect of typically small concerns that ordinarily presented minor issues,” according to the report.

In Fox Point near Milwaukee, some ballots that were mailed out through the Postal Service were returned to village officials without any explanation, rather than being delivered to voters. Village officials said it is unclear how many voters were affected by the mail problems.

The Postal Service’s internal investigation into the Wisconsin problems found that the agency generally followed its procedures but needed to improve communication and coordination with local election officials.

Since then, Fox Point officials and the Postal Service have been working to avoid running into the same problems for the November election, when they anticipate more voters will opt to vote by mail, said Scott Botcher, village manager. Residents were calling as early as mid-June to confirm they had received their ballots for an upcoming Aug. 11 election, he said.

“A lady called and said, ‘Holy smokes, I already got my ballot, thanks a lot.’ Everyone knows that, last time, we had issues,” Botcher said.

Wisconsin is among the states that are adopting intelligent mail bar codes for the November election, to avoid mail-tracking problems that several counties faced in the spring. Such bar codes allow both voters and election officials to track ballots in real time while en route. This system is costly, but it would alleviate the workload on county clerks fielding multiple calls from voters asking about the status of their ballots, officials said.

In Ohio, state officials shuttered most polling locations for the primaries because of the pandemic and extended mailing deadlines to give voters until the Saturday before election Tuesday to request their mail ballots.

That meant ballots had to travel to the voters and back in a matter of two business days. Yet some took up to nine days and were not returned in time to be counted, according to the secretary of state. In one county, more than 300 delayed ballots were not counted, and advocates say the number likely is greater across the state’s 88 counties.

In a new report, the Postal Service raised concerns about states’ new ballot deadlines that do not agree with postal guidelines and warned of potential delays nationwide for the general election if those deadlines are not changed.

Whether ballots are submitted in time for counting depends on several factors, including differences in delivery times for First Class Mail, which is more expedited and takes two to five days, compared to standard marketing mail, which could take up to 10 days to deliver.

Ahead of the Texas elections this week, some voters in Dallas who had mailed out their votes to the county were inexplicably receiving their ballots back in the mail just days before the election.

The Postal Service said in a statement that the ballots were returned because of an issue with the way the return envelopes were printed, highlighting the variety of complex challenges that may lie ahead for local and state officials.

Summer Bentley

A butterfly drinks from a day lily, as photographed by Swanzey resident Summer Bentley on July 4.

Walmart will require shoppers to wear face masks

Walmart Inc. will require all shoppers to wear masks starting Monday, positioning employees at the entryways of thousands of its namesake stores and Sam’s Club locations to help with enforcement.

The nation’s largest retailer announced the plan Wednesday, citing the recent resurgence in U.S. coronavirus cases and the need for consistency across its operations. The company said about 3,500 of its more than 5,300 Walmart and Sam’s Clubs locations already are observing public-health mandates within their respective markets.

“We know some people have differing opinions on this topic,” said a news release from Dacona Smith and Lance de la Rosa, the chief operating officers of Walmart and Sam’s Club, respectively. “We also recognize the role we can play to help protect the health and well-being of the communities we serve by following the evolving guidance of health officials like the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].”

The world’s biggest retail trade group lauded Walmart’s move and expressed hope that it would be a “tipping point” for the retail industry. Only a handful of national retailers, including Costco, Apple and Best Buy, have blanket policies requiring masks at all of their stores.

“Workers serving customers should not have to make a critical decision as to whether they should risk exposure to infection or lose their jobs because a minority of people refuse to wear masks in order to help stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus,” the National Retail Federation said in a statement.

“Shopping in a store is a privilege, not a right. If a customer refuses to adhere to store policies, they are putting employees and other customers at undue risk,” the statement continued.

Mixed messaging from local and state governments, and varying business policies, have politicized mask use despite clear evidence that masks can help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, the pathogen that causes COVID-19, which has killed at least 133,000 Americans. The number of confirmed U.S. coronavirus infections is approaching 3.5 million. The CDC, which originally downplayed the importance of masks, now calls face coverings “a critical preventive measure” and says they should be worn in public.

The move comes amid a surge in infections, particularly in the South and West, that has overwhelmed hospitals and raised fears of more outbreaks this fall and winter. The United States topped 50,000 new cases in one day for the first time on July 1, shortly after the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony Fauci, warned that the country could expect to see 100,000 new cases a day “if this does not turn around.” On Tuesday, the United States reported 62,429 daily new cases.

Economists say nationwide mask requirements could prevent a return to widespread shutdowns and further economic turmoil. Last week, a Goldman Sachs analysis estimated that a nationwide mask requirement could avert more shutdowns and the potential loss of $1 trillion from U.S. gross domestic product.

Walmart said it will station “health ambassadors” near store entrances to remind shoppers without face coverings to comply with the new policy. The company said it will use the next five days to train employees, post signs and prepare shoppers for the new policy.

“While we’re certainly not the first business to require face coverings, we know this is a simple step everyone can take for their safety and the safety of others in our facilities,” Walmart said in its release. “According to the CDC, face coverings help decrease the spread of COVID-19, and because the virus can be spread by people who don’t have symptoms and don’t know they are infected, it’s critically important for everyone to wear a face covering in public and social distance.”

The patchwork approach to masks and the political tempest surrounding them has left retail workers vulnerable as they enforce mask policies. Some workers say they have been told they cannot refuse service to maskless customers, even if local laws require the wearing of masks. In recent weeks, retail workers have been physically assaulted, even suffering broken limbs and, in the case of a security guard at a Family Dollar store in Michigan, killed while trying to enforce the mask requirement.

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Swanzey residents continue to call for moving polls from church

SWANZEY — Selectmen continue to hear calls to move Swanzey’s polling place from a church where the pastor recently came under fire for comments he made on social media. But town officials haven’t taken action on the matter.

For at least a decade, Christian Life Fellowship church on Whitcomb Road has served as the town’s sole election venue. But calls began several years ago to find a new location, due to concerns about the dark and uneven parking area that has been known to become particularly icy in the winter. Those requests were recently renewed after the church’s pastor, David Berman, drew the ire of many people for posts critical of the Black Lives Matter movement and government-mandated face masks.

A July 3 post on Berman’s personal Facebook page that has been circulated is headlined “No second lockdown” and advocates against the required use of masks, along with stay-at-home orders and mandated business closures. Another post, also from July 3, describes the Black Lives Matter movement as an “anti-Christ, pro sexual and gender perversion Marxist organization that wants to eradicate the nuclear family.”

Berman confirmed making the posts but said people have taken them out of context. He emphasized that his issue is with the Black Lives Matter organization rather than Black people, and that he’s not opposed to face masks, just the notion of them being mandated by the government.

A petition was started last week to urge the selectboard to move the town’s polling place, calling it “inappropriate” to use places of worship for voting. The petition, which also cites the Facebook posts, had more than 930 signatures as of 9 p.m. Wednesday.

Earlier this month, resident Robert Audette sent an email to the selectboard advocating for the polls to be moved due to concerns that some community members might feel uncomfortable there. On Wednesday, he said that as a white man, he’s not uncomfortable in that setting, but that doesn’t mean others, given Berman’s posts, might not feel strange entering the church.

“Because I’m so comfortable, I feel like I have to speak out for my neighbors who may not be as comfortable,” Audette said. “I don’t really know if a person who is LGBTQA is happy going into a church, especially this church. I don’t know if somebody of another religion feels comfortable going into this church. I especially don’t know if a person of color [would feel comfortable].”

A few other residents who tuned in to Wednesday’s videoconferenced selectboard meeting also supported moving the polls, with one, Ed Sheldon, saying he was hoping to have this addressed ahead of September’s state primary election. Another resident, Jazmin Belcoure, echoed others who have suggested using Monadnock Regional Middle/High School as a voting location and also said the Keene-owned Dillant-Hopkins Airport in North Swanzey may suit the town’s election needs.

Elections in area communities are generally held in town halls, meetinghouses, community centers and schools, although Keene and Walpole both have polling places in houses of worship.

N.H. Rep. Jennie Gomarlo, a Swanzey Democrat, has also voiced support for moving the polls, citing Berman’s comments as well as longer-running concerns about the parking lot. She said the town’s Democratic committee has been advocating for a change in venue for the past five years and that she approached the selectboard in January to inquire about moving elections to the high school.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Gomarlo, who is running for re-election, said the school could better accommodate social-distancing recommendations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She called this a “big election year” and said that the wintry weather that often leaves the church parking lot in dangerous condition could arrive by the time the November election rolls around. She said she was upset that nothing had come of the request she made in the winter.

“I’m disappointed that nobody took that initiative to try to work this out ahead of time,” she said. “[The school] has great parking, great distancing, it’s out of the weather, and that place at the church is a hazard.”

The Monadnock Regional School Board considered allowing the school to be used for elections in 2015, but decided against it. Among the concerns cited at the time were the possibility that voting would disrupt classes.

During Wednesday’s selectboard meeting, Gomarlo noted that the agenda said the session would be called to order at 5:30 p.m., but that discussions regarding the church had begun before that.

Notice of the time change had been posted to the town’s website around 4 p.m. the day before the meeting, and was also posted at town hall and at the Swanzey Post Office, according to Town Administrator Michael Branley. He said the meeting started a bit earlier than originally planned to allow extra time for public comment ahead of a public hearing on a separate matter.

“The chairman was concerned that with the previously scheduled public hearing at 6 p.m., we may not have enough time to discuss this important issue before the hearing,” Branley said in an email Wednesday night. “So he asked me to post the earlier start time to give the board a few minutes to discuss the matter prior to the public input portion.”

As for Swanzey’s polling place, Selectman Bill Hutwelker said the town is working to find a solution.

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Health experts: Remember to take ticks seriously

With the outdoors being one of the few places people can escape the crowd-concerns of COVID-19, experts are reminding Granite Staters of the importance of protecting themselves against ticks.

Though tick exposure can occur year-round, the insects — which are known for carrying diseases — are most active during warmer months, usually starting in New Hampshire in the spring.

State Entomologist Piera Siegert said the tick population this year seems to be fairly normal compared to in previous years. This mostly depends on the season’s weather, she noted, as a tick’s metabolism is dependent on external temperatures.

“A warmer spring would see earlier emergence of ticks, and a colder, delayed, spring should see delayed activity,” she said in an email.

Acorn production can also play a role in the tick season, Siegert said.

The blacklegged tick, for example, feeds on animals like chipmunk and deer, which eat acorns. The more acorns there are in a given year, the likelier it’ll be to see an increased tick population.

At BeBop Labs in Salisbury, the number of blacklegged ticks being submitted from New Hampshire residents was up this spring, according to founder Kaitlyn Morse.

By contrast, she said the number of dog ticks appear to be down this year.

However, BeBop Labs doesn’t analyze its data until the end of the year, Morse said, so it’s unclear if the number of certain ticks they are getting correlate with the state’s tick population yet.

BeBop Labs, founded in 2018, is a citizen-driven project focused on tracking ticks and tick-borne illnesses. The lab has several tick collection spots set up across New Hampshire, its website says, and people are also able to send ticks they find to the lab.

“Because BeBop Labs asks what we call citizen scientists to send us ticks, our change in the population could be due to a change in the citizen scientists’ knowledge about us,” she explained, “or maybe we are getting more blacklegged ticks because our citizen scientists know they are more dangerous than dog ticks.”

Blacklegged ticks are the most common in New England, and have four life stages: egg, larva, nymph and adult. The nymphs are most active in the late spring through summer months — usually from May to August — and are the most likely to infect humans with disease, according to a news release from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.

These ticks spike again around October when they molt into adults, but are less of a threat, as they prefer deer or dogs as hosts at this stage, the BeBop Labs’ website says.

Morse said the increase in blacklegged ticks collected this spring could mean a similar increase when they re-emerge in the fall.

Dog ticks — which have the same life stages as blacklegged ticks — have only one season, sticking around from spring to summer.

It’s fairly rare for dog ticks in New England to transmit disease, but it’s common in the South, the lab’s website notes.

According to BeBop Labs’ annual spring newsletter, the organization collected nearly 6,000 blacklegged ticks in 2019 statewide, and 1,272 of those ticks were tested for disease.

In Cheshire County, the newsletter shows that of the 99 ticks tested, 36 percent contained Lyme disease. Others were carrying other tick-borne parasites and bacteria: 36 percent had Borrelia, 2 percent had Babesia, and 5 percent had the bacteria that causes anaplasmosis.

Statewide, 871 ticks were tested by the lab, showing 36 percent had Lyme disease, 37 percent had Borrelia, 4 percent had Babesia, 4 percent had the bacteria that causes anaplasmosis, and 1 percent had miyamotoi — bacteria that causes tick-borne relapsing fever.

Lyme disease — the most common tick-borne illness in the United States — is caused by Borrelia burgdoerferi, but Borrelia itself is a genus that can contain up to 23 different pathogens, Morse said.

New Hampshire continues to have one of the highest rates of Lyme in the nation, the state health department’s news release says. All the diseases can produce similar flu-like symptoms of fever, chills, sweats and headaches.

To avoid contracting them, Siegert said taking precautions when spending time outdoors is necessary, regardless of the season’s tick population.

Siegert said this includes staying on trails and avoiding areas with tall grasses and overgrown brush, wearing light-colored clothing to make ticks more visible, using effective repellents and covering your skin as much as possible.

Tick checks, on yourself, your children and your pets, should also be done regularly, she added.

“Taking reasonable precautions when outside and doing tick checks reduces your risk from tick-borne disease,” Siegert said, “while still ... enjoying the summer weather and activities.”