Voters Begin Mailing In Absentee Ballots After A Summer Of News About Post Office
On Tuesday, every local Board of Elections in North Carolina starts processing absentee ballots. A record number of these ballots are being cast this year because of the coronavirus, and most of them will travel through the U.S. Postal Service.
When Ben Copeland received his absentee ballot in September, it had a large tear in it.
"And I said, ‘Oh, that’s not good,’" Copeland said. "And they just started doing this!"
Copeland is a first-time voter in the South Park area of Charlotte. He’s a high school student, said he’s politically engaged, and he’s applied to be a poll worker.
"So I can’t imagine how many ballots they might send out possibly that are - I don’t want to say sabotaged - but messed up, essentially," Copeland said. "And how many people might not catch that?"
But Copeland had read the ballot instructions and he knew any tear would invalidate it.
"Somebody might see it and say, ‘Oh it’s just a little rip or just a little tear, it’s not a big deal.’" Copeland said. "And the truth is, we don’t really know how that affects anything."
Copeland caught this early, but he was worried about people requesting their ballots too late, given recent news about mail delays at the post office.
"It’s quite concerning because you know that could lead to potentially thousands of people missing out on the ability to cast their vote," Copeland said. "And that’s why everybody should be doing it now -- and I think that’s why they’re encouraging everybody to do so right now."
Those delays at the post office became national headlines in August. A month earlier, the new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy made changes that cut employee hours, delayed the delivery of mail and removed equipment and mailboxes.
The USPS said some of those equipment removals were routine and had been planned before DeJoy took over.
The changes also impacted letter carriers. They were limited in how they could sort mail before leaving for their routes in the morning, which delayed some mail by at least a day. Those letter carriers are the ones now picking up voters’ completed ballots.
Sylvin Stevens is president of the Charlotte chapter of the National Association of Letter Carriers. Stevens said the USPS has prepared for election mail.
"Every year when it comes around Christmas, they make adjustments for the influx of the heavier volume," Stevens said. "This letter mail coming in, these ballots coming in, we can easily handle them, because we make preparations to handle any influx of mail."
Stevens said the Charlotte area’s mail operations were disrupted for about four weeks during DeJoy’s changes. But he says they were now back to normal. And Stevens wants voters to know letter carriers understand the importance of getting ballots back safely.
"We treat it with the highest priority," Stevens said. "So I’m going to tell any customer, man, anything that comes to their house delivered, they can be rest assured: They get it and mail it back out, it’s going to get where it needs to go, in a timely, and safe, expeditious way."
How The Mail Slowed Down
At the post office, machines scan and separate ballots from general mail. The ballots are sorted into bins for the Board of Elections office in that county. Tony Wilson leads the North Carolina Council of the American Postal Workers Union.
"All mail is important, but that (ballots) becomes a higher precedence so that we make sure that that mail gets processed," Wilson said. "Even now, just the other day at work, I think I may have had 10 or 12 things of political mail. You make sure that gets done, regardless. You make sure the political mail gets done."
In July and August, five mail sorting machines were removed and two were shut down from Wilson’s facility near the Charlotte airport. These machines allow employees to process hundreds of thousands of pieces of mail in a single work shift. None of those seven machines has been replaced.
But Wilson is not concerned because the remaining machines can process mail at a higher capacity when needed, he said.
DeJoy said in mid-August after public outcry that he would suspend changes to equipment and personnel until after the November election. And in a recent lawsuit involving 14 states, a federal judge ruled the USPS would have to undo its recent changes to operations in those states. That would include putting back mail sorting machines and changing its “leave behind” policy for delivery trucks.
North Carolina is part of a separate but similar lawsuit that is still pending in court.
Post office documents shown in federal court in New York revealed that 711 mail sorting machines had been removed, the highest number in at least four years. Those changes led to a slowdown in mail. A recent report by the office of U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., showed DeJoy’s changes to post office operations this summer caused a delay in 7% of the country’s first-class mail.
Wilson said he believes the public outcry in August led to the improvement in mail delivery. Wilson added that USPS has hired temporary mail assistants to process mail through the end of the year.
"I feel confident, along with the mail processing assistants and along with the overtime, that we can get the mail done," he said.
In a statement to WFAE, a USPS spokesperson says the organization has the capacity to handle all mailed absentee ballots, given that it handles more than 433 million pieces of mail every day. It says that delivery for first class and other mail slowed in August, but is now closer to promised delivery times.
A recent New York Times investigation shows that local and long-distance mail coming from various cities around the country was late at higher levels during July and August than any other month this year.
"And then once it gets back to the Board of Elections office, then we go through the ballots that come in," said Michael Dickerson, director of elections for Mecklenburg County.
Once The Ballot Gets To The Board Of Elections
Dickerson said the USPS drops off completed ballots at his office and elections employees can pick them up from post office locations. Dickerson said the post office is prepared for the large influx of mail-in absentee ballots.
"We’ve been getting mail, and we have been getting returned absentee ballots, we have been getting absentee ballot requests, we’ve been getting voter registration requests through the mail," he said. "Our mail production is the same. So I have full confidence in the process."
The state Board of Elections will provide guidance for how counties can reach out to voters if their ballot is spoiled, meaning it has a mistake. Dickerson said the most common mistake is the lack of a witness signature.
He has one message for voters who still have concerns.
"Give yourself plenty of time," he said. "The good thing about absentee by-mail, (the) good thing about early voting, (is) if there is a problem, you can correct it before Election Day. So go ahead and start early, and we’ll get 'em out to you. "
The last day to request an absentee ballot in North Carolina is Oct. 27, but Dickerson said people should request theirs now and mail them back as soon as they can, or bring them physically into their county’s Board of Elections office or an early voting site.
Once the absentee ballot is successfully filled out and back in the office, Board of Elections employees scan the unique barcode on the outer envelope of the ballot. This allows voters to know their ballot was received through the state’s BallotTrax system. Then, the Board of Elections meets, approves the still-unopened ballots, and employees run the ballots through a machine to tabulate votes. The ballots are sealed and kept in a vault.
On Election Day, they tally the results and release those numbers when the polls close.
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