Mail Delays Endanger Voting for More Than 100 Absentee Voters in Shelby County

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absentee-photoMore than 100 Shelby County voters who applied to vote absentee learned Monday that they could not because their applications had been delayed in the mail.

Shelby County Circuit Court Clerk Mary Harris said she received 122 applications for absentee ballots in the mail Monday. The problem is, the deadline for receiving those applications was Thursday.

The peculiar thing about those applications, Harris said, is that they were postmarked Monday, Oct. 31. Of those, 97 were from the metro Birmingham area, she said.

Harris spent Monday alerting people that their absentee ballots were not in the mail and that they must, if possible, go to their regular polling place to cast their ballots.

Harris, who has been the absentee election manager in Shelby County since 1972, said she alerted the Secretary of State’s office of the situation.

“I don’t know where these (97) applications have been sitting but I didn’t get them until (Monday),” she said. “Fifteen others were from other areas of the country. That was 122 that I got today.”

Harris said a large number of the tardy applications are for college students who are away at school.

Harris said she tried to do everything she could, and she hopes some of the people affected can vote in person.

She said she doesn’t know whether the applications were in a downtown Birmingham facility or where they may have been.

“They mailed them in a sufficient amount of time that I should have been able to mail them a ballot,” she lamented. “I pitched a fit after the primary, hoping there would be some changes made, knowing there was going to be a huge turnout for this election. I had hopes that if they were having trouble with mail delivery, they would call in extra workers or something, whatever they had to do.”

Harris said that, during the primary, she sent 875 absentee ballots out to voters and had 70 of them returned on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday after the election. Many of those ballots had been mailed from local 35242 and 35244 ZIP codes.

“Some of them were mailed Wednesday and Thursday before the election (from) 35242 and 35244,” she said. “There’s no reason I should not have gotten those ballots by Tuesday morning by noon,” the deadline for absentee ballots to be counted.

“We haven’t seen the problems with the mail until they started having cutbacks in the postal system,” Harris said. “I understand cutbacks. I’ve been through cutbacks. But you would think arrangements would be made knowing that you were going to have ballots mailed back in large numbers.”

Secretary of State Director of Communications John C. Bennett said his office had been notified about the problems in Shelby County but was not aware of any other problems with the delivery of absentee ballots.

He said voters had been cautioned to allow plenty of time for absentee ballots to be received through the mail. Bennett said legislation to rectify the problem will be discussed after the first the year.

Harris said she has worked 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week since Sept. 7, trying to aid the election process.

“You’re not sending things back for corrections because you don’t want people’s vote to count. You’re doing it because you want it to count,” she said. “You’re going the extra mile because you want people to have the ability to vote. When something like this happens, it’s just very frustrating for me.”

BirminghamWatch first learned of a complaint about missing absentee ballot applications in Shelby County through a tip from ProPublica’s Electionland project. The project, in which BirminghamWatch is participating, will cover access to the ballot and problems that prevent people from exercising their right to vote. You can participate by texting ELECTIONLAND to 69866. Or you can notify BirminghamWatch directly of any issues at the polls by emailing vmartin@bellsouth.net or calling 205-595-2402.

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