Couple receives mail in ballots with and without stamps required – what happened?

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — An Austin couple wants to stamp out an election postage problem.

“It just struck me as a strange system,” said Sue Hulme-Lowe, 67, “that there were two different kinds of envelopes used by the county office.”

Sue and her husband Alan, 68, live in northwest Austin. They chose to vote by-mail for the upcoming Nov. 2 election because they’re worried about the risk of COVID-19.

“Why would you take a risk if you don’t need to?” she said. “So we did mail-in balloting.”

The couple reached out to KXAN after noticing Alan’s mail-in ballot required a “first-class mail postage” that “must be applied” in order to be returned. Sue’s otherwise identical envelope from the Travis County Clerk’s Election Division, however, said “no postage necessary if mailed in the United States.”

“We were just surprised that [a stamp] could be required because we have the right to vote,” said Sue, who moved to Austin from the United Kingdom nearly 30 years ago. She became a US citizen around 2001 and, before last year, “absolutely” voted in-person for every election she could, she said.

The right to vote is the reason she wanted to become a U.S. citizen.

“We didn’t understand why we had to pay,” she said. “Even if it was just the price of a stamp [it seemed unfair] just to cast our ballot.”

Postage problems

A first-class stamp costs $0.58 but if you’re sent a mail-in ballot that requires postage, you don’t need to start searching your couch for quarters and pennies just yet.

The U.S. Postal Service said it will deliver ballots with insufficient or unpaid postage without delay. The proper postage would then be collected from the appropriate Board of Elections.

So, why are some mail-in ballots requiring stamps but not others?

Last year, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir did away with the need for stamps for mail-in ballots. That created a backlog of pre-2020 envelopes, which did require postage. A spokesperson for the county clerk’s office did not say why those outdated envelopes were never destroyed or how they got mixed in with the current batch of ballots.

“A small batch of old envelopes was included in our inventory and wasn’t removed,” a spokesperson said, attributing the problem to a “clerical error.”

The Hulme-Lowe’s feel the county should have just tossed the old envelopes away.

“I’m guessing if all of those envelopes that needed a stamp did not get one, and then the county was charged the postage for them, that would be a much higher cost than if they had just discarded the old envelopes,” Sue said.

‘A clerical error’

Out of more than 6,000 ballots sent out to Travis County voters, the county clerks office estimates that “less than 100” require postage. The county does not track which voters received the outdated envelopes.

It is “happenstance and bad luck” that they received one of the ballots that require a stamp, Sue said.

Both the Travis County Clerk and Texas Secretary of State offices say they have not received any complaints about this issue.

Alan and Sue Hulme-Lowe (Courtesy Sue Hulme-Lowe)

“It was a clerical error,” a spokesperson for the Travis County Clerk’s office said in an email to KXAN. “Very few older envelopes that require postage were sent out.”

Voters can either add their own stamp and return their ballot or they can call the clerk’s office to request a new envelope with postage included, the clerk’s office told KXAN.

The Texas Secretary of State’s office says if you mailed off a ballot that required a stamp and didn’t notice or forgot to add one — don’t worry.

“According to the U.S. Postal Service, official election mail — including carrier envelopes for mail-in ballots — must be delivered to the county elections office regardless of postage,” said Texas SOS spokesperson Sam Taylor. “Carrier envelopes with postage should be delivered by USPS, which subsequently charges the counties for any missing postage after the fact.”

While counties are not required to pre-pay postage, some Texas counties choose to do so, Taylor said.

“Our office stands ready to advise and assist county election officials in implementing uniform election procedures in accordance with both Texas and federal law,” he added.

In June, the legislature passed HB 1382, which requires the Secretary of State’s office to provide an online tool so anyone who votes-by-mail can track their ballot to make sure it was received by the county’s early voting clerk.

This will be rolled out statewide in time for the 2022 primary elections, Taylor said.

As for the Hulme-Lowe’s, they ended up sticking a stamp on Alan’s ballot — not wanting to take any chances.

“Everyone should vote,” Sue said.

No matter the cost.

If you are having election-related issues you can contact the Travis County Clerk’s Election Division at: (512) 854-4996 or the Texas Secretary of State. Send KXAN Investigators a tip through this online form.

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