Baucus concerned that late mail could mean late vote 

After Sen. Max Baucus brought the Postmaster General to Ingomar, Mont., in April, there was a rural sigh of relief. At least for now, tiny post offices across the state would be spared proposed closures aiming to balance the Postal Service's billions of dollars of debt. But a recent announcement has the senator up in arms again—Kalispell's mail sorting center is slated to close this summer.

That could be troublesome in an election year. Mail-in voting in Montana is on the rise. According to the Montana secretary of state's office, 47 percent of the vote in the 2010 general election was by mail, compared to 15 percent in 2000. And the state just mailed out a record number of absentee ballots for the June 5 primary election.

If Baucus gets his way, Kalispell's facility can't close until after Nov. 13. He won an amendment in the Senate's recently passed Postal Reform Bill that bars the closing of any mail facility prior to that date in states where residents can vote by mail. But it hasn't passed the House.

The Postmaster General went ahead with a plan to close and consolidate up to 140 facilities over the summer, including Kalispell's. Baucus was not pleased.

"Closing the mail processing center in Kalispell will slow mail delivery all across northwest Montana and the delivery process would still be in a state of transition come November," Baucus said in an emailed statement.

His office says that if the bill isn't passed, sorting facilities in Butte, Helena and Wolf Point would likely be discussed for closure next year, as the Postal Service is looking at a $14 billion loss in 2012. Instead of closing facilities, the bill would save money by altering mandated pre-funding of retiree benefits, recouping excess payments to the Federal Employee Retirement System and dropping Saturday deliveries.

Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch wrote in a January letter to the Postmaster General that she expects more absentee votes in this election than any before. She warned that if the snail mail gets any slower, it could "unintentionally discourage Montanans from voting."

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