An unscientific test of the US Postal Service found a significant drop-off in delivery times of First Class Mail across the United States in October.
Investigative Units from NBC Owned television stations along with NBCLX and CNBC have conducted three similar tests since last August.
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In all, the team sent 809 letters to at least 64 different cities around the United States.
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative team alone mailed 262 letters from Post Office locations in Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose.
This time, with the presidential election just weeks away, our test found significant slowdowns.
The on-time delivery success rate for three-day delivery was just 79%, compared to an 88% success rate in our August and September tests.
The US Postal Service’s internal performance numbers released late Friday also showed a slight decline in performance compared to September, though much smaller than what NBC Stations found in our unscientific test.
The late October press release reads in part: First-Class Mail: 85.58% of First-Class Mail was delivered on time, a 0.57% decrease from the week of Oct. 3.
“The U.S. Postal Service’s general recommendation is that, as a common-sense measure, voters should mail their completed ballot before Election Day, and at least one week prior to their state’s deadline.”
This month, the Postal Service’s own Inspector General issued a report blaming poor performance on changes implemented by new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.
Even so, elections observers say the poor First Class three-day delivery performance in October is not likely to have any real impact on voting by mail.
While only 79% of the mail in our test arrived within three days, more than 98% of our letters arrived within five days.
Mark Dimondstein, national president of the American Postal Workers’ Union based in Washington, D.C. has been critical of the changes implemented by Postmaster General DeJoy. But Dimondstein said he doesn’t believe the drop-off in performance will affect mail-in ballots or November’s Presidential Election.
“There's no question that the election mail is getting absolute priority treatment,” Dimondstein told NBC. “I wouldn't necessarily conflate what's happening with the mail overall with what's happening to election mail. I think election mail is going to be treated, and should be, with great priority.”
While Postmaster General DeJoy wasn’t available to answer NBC’s questions about this latest decline in performance, top postal officials held a virtual news conference last week where NBC asked them about the October slowdown.
Chief Retail and Delivery Officer Kristin Seaver did not directly answer NBC’s inquiry, but insisted “election mail will not be delayed.”
“We take seriously our mission,” Seaver said. “We are stabilizing, and we are operating at what we would call our COVID pandemic levels. The Postal Service is deploying all available resources to ensure that all election mail moves timely through our system and gets to the intended recipient on time. And we will continue to have that focus through the election.”
USPS spokesman Michael Hotovy, a Strategic Communications Specialist located in Washington, D.C. issued this statement:
Without a review of the actual mailpieces and mailing conditions, the Postal Service cannot substantiate that your test represents a reasonable approximation of postal standards as applied to our mailstream, including processing and delivery. National statistics recently released by the Postal Service show that for the week of Oct. 10-16, 85.57% of First Class Mail was delivered on time, with 97.81% delivered within two days of the service standard. Additional statistics can be found at https://about.usps.com/what/performance/service-performance/welcome.htm
Despite those assurances, some residents living in the Bay Area are concerned by what they've experienced so far.
Oakland resident April Thomas stumbled on something strange while walking through her neighborhood: A pile of mail in the middle of the street containing five mail-in ballots addresses to Oakland residents.
“My partner and I were just walking the dog. This is our usual walking route,” Thomas said.
“I saw a huge pile of mail right over here,” Thomas said, describing the scene. “The whole area was covered with mail pieces. And there were five ballots (with) real ballots in (the envelopes).”
Thomas said she's concerned the ballots may never reach their destination.
“You could see the ballots right on top,” said Thomas. “One of them was already opened. I didn’t have my phone with me so I picked up the ballots and took them home with me and took a picture so I could document it and send them in to the county”
“That could be five people disenfranchised just sitting in front of me in the street,” Thomas said. “So I was really worried about it.”
April Thomas isn’t the only one.
Ninety-eight residents in Berkeley waited weeks for their mail-in-ballots to arrive, and as of last week, they still hadn’t.
“Our household we have four registered voters and none of our ballots has arrived,” said Berkeley resident Julie Bussgang. “This year we’ve had a lot of problems with mail delivery. Have not had mail in the last three days.”
The Alameda County Registrar of Voters told NBC Bay Area that the office sent all the residents in question mail-in-ballots through the mail. According to Registrar Tim Dupuis, those 98 ballots didn’t make it through the automation process, where machines sort through mountains of mail that then go to the postal carriers.
But elections officials remain upbeat and believe the issues NBC found with delivery performance will not impact California vote-by-mail operations.
“Our voters in Santa Clara County, in the state, should feel comfortable voting by mail,” said Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey. “If you have any concern whatsoever about the post office, you have two other choices right now.”
Bushey is referring to the option California voters have of dropping off completed ballots at drop box locations around each county, vote centers opening on Halloween, or at any elections office.