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Postage Mix-Up Stirs Fears Of Ballots Getting Lost in Mail

By Lori Montgomery and Spencer Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 28, 2004; Page DZ02

At first, Bunny Polmer figured her absentee ballot was designed to make its way back to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics without stamps. After all, the envelope the elections board had provided for the Nov. 2 presidential ballot said nothing about postage.

But on Monday, Polmer took the missive to the Tenleytown post office, just to make sure. There, she was astonished to learn that the ballot, with its multiple envelopes, weighed more than an ounce and therefore required not one stamp, but two.

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"I said, this is not possible. She charged me 60 cents. So not only does the thing need postage, which I didn't know, but you can't even put your basic 37-cent stamp on it," said Polmer, a public relations professional.

Polmer plans to spend Election Day in Ohio, where she said she'll be part of a poll-watching group working to make sure voters in that critical swing state are able to cast ballots. "I thought, I'm going all the way to Ohio to make sure people aren't disenfranchised. But what's going on under my nose here?"

As it turned out, Polmer wasn't the only person who was baffled. Dozens of residents contacted their council members, as well as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), worried that confusion over postage would mean that hundreds of absentee ballots would never be counted.

"I think this could be really problematic. Because if you don't say it needs extra postage, people will just mail it," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who said elections officials told one of his constituents to "hand-carry" the ballot to the board after he called to complain. Polmer said she was never even able to complain: Telephone lines at the overwhelmed elections board rang "perpetually busy," she said.

The postage snafu is just the latest bureaucratic blunder by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. For the Sept. 14 primary, the board forgot to include information in city voter guides telling people where to vote. And earlier this year, the board's voter guides reached many city residents after the election was over.

This week, a spokesman for the elections board did not return calls to his cell phone or office. But Norton put out a news release saying she had resolved the problem by asking Postmaster Delores J. Killette to deliver D.C. ballots to the elections board regardless of whether they bear sufficient postage. Killette agreed, Norton said.

Norton warned, however, that residents should use the right amount of postage anyway. To be counted, absentee ballots must be postmarked no later than Nov. 2.

Mayor Plugs Baseball

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has been polishing his rhetoric on the volatile issue of baseball. During a luncheon speech Tuesday to the Harvard Club of Washington, the mayor had a ready retort for those who complain that they don't like his $440 million financing plan for a new ballpark, that they don't like the proposed site of the new ballpark near the Anacostia waterfront in Southeast D.C., and that the mayor has generally sold the city's soul to Major League Baseball.

"To me, it comes to this: I delivered baseball to the city, okay?" Williams said. "It was not pretty getting to the point we're at with baseball. . . . But now we've got to take this opportunity and seize on this opportunity."

The Harvard Club was honoring Williams with its 2004 Public Service Award, praising the mayor for bringing "competence . . . to our government" and renewing "our sense of pride in our capital city."

The mayor, who was an undergraduate at Yale but later earned a law degree and a master's in public policy from Harvard, seemed to thoroughly enjoy the occasion. His half-hour speech was studded with laugh lines, and hizzoner stuck around for nearly 30 minutes more to answer questions from the capacity crowd at the posh University Club.

"I'm really honored, actually. I really am," Williams said afterward of the award. "When you've been in office for six years, and when you get someone who will give you some credit for something, it's like an oasis in a desert," he said, chuckling.

Toxic Threat on Rails?

In other news about Norton, the District's nonvoting delegate has added her voice to those of District leaders who oppose the continued shipment of hazardous materials on rail lines through the city.

In a news release, Norton contrasted the lack of action on the matter by the Department of Homeland Security with what she argues is an overreaction to security concerns at the U.S. Capitol.

"We have our eyes on a few trees while we ignore the far more dangerous forest where the wolves really are," Norton said, alluding to a recent campaign ad from President Bush that used the toothy predators to represent the danger of terrorists.

"Homeland Security officials know that this danger is immense," Norton said. The danger of a toxic rail car explosion "is far greater to the Capitol than the possible dangers that sparked make-work security measures, including 24-hour roadblocks exhausting the Capitol Police with 12-hour days of peeking in every car window around the Capitol."

Federal environmental disclosure reports show that in a worst-case scenario, the rupture of a 90-ton tanker car carrying a toxic chemical such as liquid chlorine could kill or injure thousands of people up to 14 miles away. The Department of Homeland Security has said it is preparing a plan for the shipments, though some District officials and environmental groups accuse the Bush administration of dragging its feet on new rail industry regulations.


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