October 17, 2008 Volume 109 Number 20

Union workers proud of handling, delivering, counting ballots

Though nearly all of it is behind the scenes, union members are a big part of making Oregon’s vote-by-mail system clean, fair, and efficient. That’s because much of the handling, delivery and counting of the ballots is done by union workers.

The handling and delivery falls on the shoulders of the mail handlers, postal workers and letter carriers of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), for whom taking care of ballots is something like a sacred duty.

“It’s a patriotic thing,” said L.C. Hansen, president of Portland-headquartered Branch 82 of National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC). Between one-third and two-fifths of postal employees are military veterans, Hansen points out, thanks to civil service preferences in hiring.

And Hansen said her members are extra vigilant to see that ballots are correctly delivered, a conclusion echoed by Brian Dunsmore, vice president of American Postal Workers Union Local 128, and Gregory Stark, Executive Board member of National Postal Mail Handlers Union (NPMHU) Local 315.

Recent postal union conventions have passed resolutions calling for other states to adopt vote-by-mail, and not just because it brings in additional Postal Service revenue. It also enhances the image of the public postal service to the citizenry. And vote-by-mail makes it possible for membership groups — like labor unions — to amplify their political strength: Between ballot mail out and Election Day, groups like unions can get daily updates on which of their members have voted. That allows them to focus political education and get-out-the-vote efforts on members who haven’t voted yet, and thereby greatly increasing turnout.

Twenty-eight states allow voters to cast ballots by mail without the need for a special reason, but as yet only Oregon conducts all elections by mail in every county.

In Oregon’s system, ballots must arrive by 8 p.m. Election Day to be counted, and postmarks don’t count. But Hansen said elections officials are overly cautious when they say ballots have to be mailed several days before Election Day.

Because ballot envelopes are distinctive, and USPS employees go to extra efforts, even ballots mailed on the day of the election are likely to arrive in time, Hansen said — provided they are collected by 4 p.m. and mailed in the local area. Hansen herself goes to Portland’s main post office a few hours before the polls close and scours the system to make sure all ballots make their way to elections offices.

Finally, when it comes to overseeing the count, the workers at most county elections departments are union-represented. Multnomah County Elections Division, for example, has a permanent staff of 14 that’s assisted at election time by a temporary work force that swells to about 250. Twelve of the permanents are represented by American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 88. [AFSCME represents county workers in 16 of Oregon’s 36 counties. Several other counties are represented by the Service Employees International Union or by independent employee associations.]

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