Will Your Mail-in Ballot Reach Its Destination in Time? NBC Puts USPS to the Test

NBC Universal, Inc.

The U.S. Postal Service slowdown continues in some parts of the country, but an informal test by NBC Bay Area, NBCLX and other NBC Owned Television Stations around the U.S. found the delays don’t appear significant enough to disrupt the upcoming Presidential election, where a record number of voters are expected to cast their ballots through the mail.

Even so, hundreds-of-thousands of votes could potentially go uncounted if just one percent of mail-in ballots are not delivered on time. That could prove significant in a tight election and may fuel speculation that vote tallies can’t be trusted or the process was somehow rigged. It could also impact smaller, more local races where the number of ballots is expected to make much more of a difference in the outcome. For months now, President Trump has railed against mail-in voting. In one instance the President Tweeted, with no proof,  that mail-in-ballots could lead to “mayhem” in some states even though he and the First Lady have already signed up to vote by mail through absentee ballot in Florida.

Following a similar test in August, NBC stations sent 426 first-class letters to a dozen major U.S. cities on September 11, 2020. NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit sent 133 letters from the Bay Area alone, from post offices in San Jose, San Francisco and San Leandro. The Unit sent 87 letters to destinations in Santa Clara County, 13 to cities in the East Bay, 11 to San Francisco, 9 letters to cities on the Peninsula and 4 letters to communities in the North Bay. The team sent 7 letters to communities in and around Los Angeles, and two to San Diego.

NBC Bay Area also sent six letters to the Miami/Ft Lauderdale area, five to the Dallas/Ft Worth area, three to the greater Washington, D.C. area, three to Philadelphia, two to New York City, and one each to Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Tampa and Tucson.

For a second straight month, the Postal Service delivered 88 percent of letters within three days, while 98.1% arrived within a week. In published literature and on its website the USPS says letters should arrive within three business days with a goal of delivering 96.5% of them within that time frame.

However, NBC’s team discovered that isolated breakdowns in the system led to significant delays for the other 2% of letters sent in cities such as Dallas/Fort Worth, New York and San Jose. For instance, a stack of letters sat at the Dallas post office for three days before moving. The letters weren't postmarked until three days after they were dropped off. A few of the 426 letters sent by NBC’s teams are still missing more than two weeks after being dropped in the mail.

Yet the USPS slowdown has ramifications beyond November’s election, such as delays in mail-order prescription drugs for seniors.

“The Postal Service’s unnecessary policy changes really threaten the core functions of location government,” said Jill Habig, founder and president of the Public Rights Project, an Oakland-based national non-profit that has filed briefs in three different federal courts around the country seeking to reverse recent changes at the U.S. Postal Service. The Public Rights Project has, so far, filed briefs in US District Courts in Washington, D.C., the Eastern District of Washington and Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

“What we are arguing (in the court filings) is that the Postal Service's unnecessary policy changes really threaten the core functions of local government,” said Habig. “That includes election administration this fall. But it also includes things like seniors getting their prescription drugs on time, pension checks going out on time, notices of health and safety violations going out to communities across the country. So, we’re filing these briefs to force the Postal Service to change these dangerous and unnecessary policies.”

While they fight in court over the changes at the Postal Service, Habig said it’s critical for local governments to come up with contingency plans, such as expanding the number of drop box locations.

“We need our state and local government to step up and make it easier, not harder, for residents to vote,” Habig said. “And we need the federal government to stop obstructing them in those efforts.”

In a recent interview with the Economic Club of Washington D.C., Postmaster General Luis DeJoy, who took the position in May, defended the changes he’s made at the USPS, for which critics blame many of these delays. Like his earlier testimony before Congress this summer, DeJoy said during the interview that the changes he’s implemented were meant to improve delivery and performance and save taxpayer money.

“I worked with the team to get those trucks to run on time with the mail in them,” DeJoy told David Rubenstein at an Economic Club of Washington DC event last week.  “That was a good plan. We could've had a better execution. We're recovering from that right now.”

DeJoy also pushed back on claims that he slashed USPS overtime, saying it’s at the same 13% in September as it was when he was appointed Postmaster General in May. And he said the man who appointed him, President Trump, was wrong to suggest the Postal Service could not handle tens of millions of mail ballots this fall.

“When the president goes into that, he's incorrect,” DeJoy said. “The American public needs to know we are prepared and committed to deliver election mail.  We have plenty of resources for the election and we will handle the election; the whole organization is committed to that.”

The results from the NBC Stations’ informal test were mirrored in other recent reports and data on USPS delivery times.

A U.S. Senate report released by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) earlier this month criticized DeJoy’s administration for the changes that the report said led to a slowdown of the mail this summer. The Senate minority report found delivery delays of 18-32% for prescription medications, equating to about 1 extra delivery day for many recipients.

“We've (received) over 109,000 letters since July 14 on this topic,” Sen. Casey told NBCLX. “People (are) in life-threatening situations, with prescription medications that are delayed, and it's attributable to the changes made by the postmaster general. It was not happening before that.”

SnailWorks, a company that uses barcodes to track 10-to-20 million pieces of mail every day, found slowdowns of a half day to a full day in delivery service recently, with more serious localized backlogs in some cities, such as New York.

However the delays weren’t significant enough for SnailWorks President Dave Lewis to be concerned about mail-in ballots. Lewis said anytime there is a huge number of items involved in an operation such as the nation’s mail system, a very small percentage is going to be lost, delayed or waylaid.

“There's always going to be the anomaly that gets stuck in a tray somewhere in those,” said Lewis.

But, Lewis said, that’s the rare exception not the rule.

“I think a very, very high percentage of the ballots that are mailed within a reasonable time frame, and even some that are mailed outside of a reasonable time frame, will be delivered,” Lewis said.

Even so, the current slowdown is enough for some voters who spoke to NBC Stations to abandon voting by mail.

“I’m going to vote in person and I’m definitely going to vote early,” said Washington D.C. resident Joyce Harris.

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