On the eve of another Osage Nation election, questions about absentee ballots still linger

The cause of problems with last month’s Osage Nation elections remains vague and issues appear to linger as the Aug. 13 special election draws near.

Albuquerque resident and Osage voter Richard Chissoe said he called the Osage Nation Election Office to verify that he did not have to re-request an absentee ballot for the special election since he had requested one for the general election. He said he was told that he did not need to  ask for a ballot again, but when he asked to verify his address he was given an old address – not the address he supplied on his latest absentee request.

When he asked how that could have happened he couldn’t get an answer, he said.

Chissoe had been one of the first to voice his concerns on social networking sites about ballots that arrived late or never arrived at all during the general election. Chissoe said he requested his absentee ballot on May 4, received a confirmation on May 11, but it didn’t arrive at his home until May 30 or later.

During the general election 1,677 absentee ballots were mailed out, based on mailing documentation. It is not clear if 1,677 individual voters requested ballots, or if some of those 1,677 ballots were mailed as re-requested ballots after the first ballot did not arrive on time. The Bigheart Times is waiting for clarification from the Osage Nation, which has been slow to respond to questions about the election issues.

A total of 1,056 absentee ballots arrived at the Pawhuska Post Office by 10 a.m. Mon., June 4, election day, in time to be counted, according to the election board results. There were 2,124 total votes counted, with 1,068 votes made in person.

Although the 2010 election results are listed on the Osage Nation election board website, the 2012 general election results have not been listed.

Osage Nation absentee ballots are mailed through a third party known as TrueBallot Inc., located in Washington, D.C. The Osage Nation used the same company in the 2010 election, and there were reports of late absentee ballots arriving during that election as well.

After the current election year issues with absentee ballots, the election office pointed to the post office as the problem, although a spokesman for USPS has said that is not likely the case.

Based on USPS’s current standards first class mail, such as the Osage Nation absentee ballots, and the postal service’s 96.8 percent on-time delivery success rate, mail should take only three full business days to arrive in L.A. from Washington D.C., two days to St. Louis and one day in the D.C. area, according to USPS spokesman Boyd McKinney.

The Election Commission sent ballot information to TrueBallot Inc., who handles the Nation’s absentee ballots, on April 20, April 27, May 4, May 11 and May 16. The deadline to request an absentee ballot for the general election was May 15. July 24 was the deadline to request an absentee ballot for the August election.

Some Osage members were under the impression that ballots were mailed out to them on those dates, but that was not the case.

“I was told that mine was mailed out on the 16th but I haven’t received it yet… Looks like my vote won’t count this year,” Mike Shafer, a Sugar Land, Texas resident, wrote on the Osage for Fiscal Responsibility Facebook page last month. His ballot finally arrived at his home on June 1, he later told The Bigheart Times.

The Times filed an open records request with the election board at the end of the business on June 1 for all documents related to tracking and distributing absentee ballots with voters and TrueBallot Inc., including documentation that tracks communication with voters who incorrectly filled out and submitted absentee ballot requests.

According to the request form, requests of fewer than 100 pages will be processed in 10 business days. If the request is denied, or is more than 100 pages, the requesting party should be notified in 10 days. Requests for more than 100 pages can take up to 20 business days to process.

The Times did not receive the 31 pages of open records documents – which includes a copy of the original request – until July 11 (23 business days after the request was made). That response came a few days after the newspaper asked Osage Nation Attorney General Jeff Jones about the tardy response. The Times was also not notified or contacted about the request in any way within 10 business of filing it.

According to the open records the Times requested, election board emails with voter information were sent on April 20, April 27, May 4, May 11 and May 16, but to whom they were sent could not be determined: The recipients of the emails were blacked out in the open records. The attachments with voter information sent in those emails were not provided to the Times. Voter information is an open record with a signature that states it will not be used for commercial use.

The absentee voter information was emailed – presumably to TrueBallot – but it appears that ballots could have been mailed out to voters on April 24, May 1, May 7 and May 18, according to postage statements and certificates of bulk mail from the open records. However, because the Nation supplied the TImes with postal forms on which the official USPS mailing dates had been blacked out, it is impossible to determine when the mailings actually occurred. The only date noted on them was entered manually on the postal mailing form by TrueBallot, or whoever filled out the form. The official postmark dates and stamps on the April 24 and May 18 postage statement were blacked out.

The May 1 and May 7 documents were certificates of bulk mailing. They had the official post office postmark stamp.

All the permit number and permit holder names were blacked out on the postage documents, although permit numbers are public record and clearly visible on mailings – in this case, permit No. 3070.

The USPS bulk-mailing reports are also unusual in that they are filled out by hand. Most bulk mailers use software that generates the reports automatically and fills them out by computer after generating bar codes for the postal service’s computerized system and sorting the mailing into the proper zones and carrier routes. (Compare the postage statements from the open records with a copy of the Bigheart Times’ own postage statement.)

The Times has requested the documents with the above information visible, but has not heard back from the Osage Nation. Since the Times received the open records request, Election Supervisor Alexis Rencountre has directed all further questions to Assistant Attorney General Clinton Patterson, who said the Times will need to speak with Executive Director of Governmental Affairs Chris White.

The Times also attempted to contact TrueBallot’s tribal elections contact, Lisa Long, by phone and email several times since the beginning of June. On June 3, Lisa Long replied in an email after the Times asked to speak with someone at the company about the absentee ballot mailing issue: “Let me talk to my CEO and I’ll get back with you asap.” Last week, after no further reply from Long and continued attempts to contact TrueBallot for comment, the Times spoke with Long by phone who said she was still waiting to hear back from the company president.

Currently, the Times is working with the USPS on tracking certain ballot envelopes provided to the publication based on the sprayed barcode on the back, and verifying postage statement dates.

Late absentee ballots cannot be overnighted, according to the Osage election office. The election board said they could only send ballots as first class mail, as stated in the election code. The election code also calls for absentee ballots to have postmarks in order to be counted, but none of the envelopes have actually postmarks because they are sent by bulk mail.

Mail sent through a bulk mailer, such as TrueBallot, receives a light pink, spray barcode on the back, which can be tracked, but no actually postmark date directly on the mail.

According to Election Board Member Walter Hooper: “Once we send [the ballot information] we have no control over it.”

By Rachel Anne Seymour

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