With a month remaining to register to vote in the Nov. 6 general election, a U.S. Postal Service directive that appeared to prohibit placement of voter registration materials at post offices drew strong protests last week from county elections officials in California.
By Thursday, a Postal Service spokesman said, postmasters had been directed to allow voter registration materials, including absentee ballot applications, on post office premises in keeping with long-standing practice.
The furor during the past week was sparked by a notice from a Postal Service business service network representative in San Francisco informing Postal Service employees of a national ruling, excerpted from the Postal Bulletin, on the use of lobbies and postal property.
It stated that between now and the November election, postmasters and station managers can expect to receive inquiries concerning the use of Postal Service lobbies and grounds for election-related activities.
"It is critical that all employees communicate the same message to prevent any negative impact on the Postal Service," the excerpt states.
It then listed items that may not be placed or collected anywhere on Postal Service property:
Ballot boxes and receptacles.
Freestanding signs or other structures, including tables, chairs or furniture of any kind.
Voter registration materials, including absentee ballot applications.
"We want to make sure our customers are not impeded," said Augustine Ruiz, Postal Service spokesman.
Throughout the year, he said, post offices receive requests from people who want to conduct various types of activities on the premises, including solicitations for money. Such activities can be carried out on public sidewalks outside a post office, but not in lobbies or customer service areas, Ruiz said.
The Postal Service, however, has traditionally allowed county elections offices and groups such as the League of Women Voters to place voter registration materials, including registration forms and absentee ballot applications, on post office counters.
As an exception to the ban on materials, the bulletin excerpt cites but does not quote the text of the Code of Federal Regulations section that allows voter registration to be conducted on postal premises by "government agencies or nonprofit civic leagues or organizations."
Jill LaVine, Sacramento County registrar of voters, said she had been in contact with elections officials in other counties who were concerned about reports that registration materials had been removed from some post offices. But LaVine said her local contact with the Postal Service was not aware of any directive to do so.
The League of Women Voters works with the Sacramento County elections office to keep post offices supplied with registration materials.
Sacramento league member Catherine Troka said she had encountered no objections from post office officials.
"I took some (registration forms) to Elk Grove, and the clerk had a big smile when he saw me," she said.
Clerks there have told her that they put out only a few registration forms at a time so that real estate agents don't deplete supplies by taking large numbers to give to clients.
Trudy Schafer, program director for the League of Women Voters of California, said she had been contacted by a league member in Tulare County who had been informed by elections officials there that they could no longer place materials at post offices.
Schafer said she was trying to find out what was going on when she learned from LaVine that the matter had apparently been resolved.
"It would be of concern to the league," Schafer said, if such a ban on registration materials were imposed.
The deadline to register for the Nov. 6 election is Oct. 22.