Monday, February 17, 2014

Is There a Card for Happy Election Day?

This is a brief interruption from addressing the local impact of the recommendations from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA).

Well, sort of, anyway.

This takes us back to what is the most frequently posted topic--the United States Post Office.

We're mailing out ballots for next week's Prairie Village primary and getting some back without issue, so that's good.

The post office is closed today for President's Day and a couple of things are top of mind with the Postal Service, not the least of which come from an article in yesterday's Kansas City Star. 

I'm not sure why I never made the Kansas City connection between Hallmark and that company's interest in stopping Saturday mail delivery.  Hallmark, as you'll see in the article, even has a United States Senator on the case.

But then, one of our state's United States Senators, Pat Roberts, was equally engaged in listening to the PCEA's recommendations last week before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.  He's the minority leader of that committee.

The Committee also was expected to vote on the nominations of two members of the Election Assistance Commission, but the Committee didn't have a quorum for such a vote.

There likely is a good reason of which I'm not aware for the lack of quorum.  There might be two or three very good reasons.

Still, it shouldn't be lost on anyone that when the PCEA spoke to arguably the Senate committee that would be most interested in the findings, only four senators were present.

My role with the PCEA recommendations, I've decided, is to link those to needs in our operations.  That's what I've started to do here and have several  posts to go on that.

Last week, I recommended locally through testimony on a bill in committee at the Kansas House of Representatives that the bill considering moving spring elections to the fall in odd-numbered years also include a requirement that schools have an in-service day for November elections.  I cited the PCEA study as part of that testimony.

I don't know how much play the recommendations will get, but I want to know I exhausted ways that this tool (the PCEA report) can help our voters.  Hence, the series of posts.

A big component of those recommendations involve advance voting, something Johnson County has done very well.  Part of that, though, requires continued use of the Postal Service, and I was encouraged to see Hallmark Cards pushing for continued "full" postal service.

I'm not being cynical, just a realist--we may have more success with a company like Hallmark pushing postal issues than we might on our own.

I'm continually baffled, though, why the only public-facing solution to the Postal Service's woes is elimination of Saturday delivery.  The shrink-to-grow business model rarely works.

In fact, the Postal Service saw an 8 percent revenue increase in its most recent fiscal year and still had a net loss of $5 billion.

Much of the problem is being pinned on postal health and retirement benefits, and I can't speak to that enough to say with certainty that's wrong.   It's a contributor, but continuous $5 billion losses defy logic.  If any of us were the chief executive officer of the Postal Service, we would be exactly that--among the "were."

None of us would be retained as the head of an outfit that continually lost billions while we walked around with our hands in the air blaming the system. 

Consider that since 2005, when I came into this job, first-class postage has risen from 37 cents to 49 cents, a 32 percent increase.

And, that hasn't been enough to fix things.

Eliminating 16.7 percent of the delivery days doesn't seem like that would be enough, either.  How could anyone with a straight face say so?

Postage is our greatest expense after staff salaries and ahead of election worker expenses.  Yet, half of our elections in that period have been mail-ballot elections despite the increases in postage. The postage increases haven't decreased the interest in mail-ballot elections nor tipped us to the point that building a larger facility for in-person advance voting is more cost-effective than continuing to use the mail for nearly half of our advance voters.

Maybe the Postal Service should look at responsive pricing, similar to baseball teams.  Games against the Yankees or on weekends, for instance, cost more here.  Maybe another twist to tiers of pricing is a premium paid for Saturday delivery.

The flaw in that theory, of course, is that if a truck drives past four homes to deliver mail to one, the truck still drove past all five homes.

Another option would be for the Postal Service to be privatized or treated like a utility with a rate of return allowed.

Something has to be done. 

Or, not, maybe.   If continued $5 billion losses aren't affecting change, maybe we'll stay on this path for several years.

At some point, though, revenues have to match the costs.  If we ride Hallmark's lobbying coattails, maybe the only things traveling through the mail will be items when the senders care to send the very best.

Here's hoping that the "very best" includes ballots.