In rule change, Postal Service forbids employees from signing absentee ballots as witnesses

In a nationwide rule change that went unnoticed this summer, the U.S. Postal Service has forbidden employees from signing absentee ballots as witnesses while on duty. The change could make it more difficult for Alaskans, particularly rural residents, to vote by mail.

In Alaska and several other states, absentee ballots must be signed by a witness who can verify that a ballot was legitimately filled out by a particular voter. Without a signature, the ballot will not be counted.

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

It lists postal officials as an example of an authorized official, but many Alaska voters said postal clerks told them they were forbidden from signing ballots.

In response to the complaints, Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai sent a letter to the Postal Service on Thursday.

“They have been told by the postal official that they are not authorized to serve as a witness in their official capacity. This came as surprise to the state because we know in past elections postal officials have served as witnesses. Rural Alaska relies heavily on postal officials as they are often sometimes the only option for a witness. ... Can you provide me with an explanation and a copy of the official postal regulation stating this mandate?” her letter said.

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Daniel Bentley, a product management specialist for the Postal Service in Washington, D.C., responded to Fenumiai that day.

“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,” he wrote.

James Boxrud, a spokesman for the Postal Service in the western United States, said, “My understanding is this is a national thing that went out. It’s not just Alaska.”

Reid Magney, public information officer for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said he hadn’t heard of anything like that. Wisconsin requires a witness for its absentee ballots.

Boxrud provided 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.”

Boxrud said at least one supervisor in Alaska has pushed back against the rule, but as far as he knows it remains in place.

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James Brooks

James Brooks was a Juneau-based reporter for the ADN from 2018 to May 2022.