We tested the post office. Here’s what we found

Thousands will soon vote by mail, with tight deadlines they have to meet to be counted

An unprecedented number of Ohioans are expected to vote by mail in this year’s presidential election because of coronavirus fears, and a Dayton Daily News investigation found mixed results by the U.S. Postal Service on whether envelopes mailed locally will arrive in time to be counted.

In August, Dayton Daily News reporters mailed 121 envelopes roughly the same size and weight of an absentee ballot from 42 public mailboxes in Montgomery, Greene, Warren and Miami counties.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

All of them made it back. But some were delayed well beyond postal service targets, and some arrived without postmarks.

State and local elections officials and advocates say mail-in ballots will be a secure and valid way for many to vote. But the bigger question, they say, will be postal delivery service.

“Challenges with the mail could affect races or issues on the margins,” League of Women Voters of Ohio Executive Director Jen Miller said.

The league is advocating reforms to make voting by absentee ballot easier. It has sued to allow county boards of election to provide multiple drop boxes for ballots. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said he doesn’t oppose multiple drop boxes, but he issued an order saying they aren’t allowed under current state law.

The Dayton Daily News found:

  • While most envelopes in the test were delivered within the target range of five days or fewer, five took more than a week. One envelope took 12 days to arrive.
  • Many envelopes arrived without a postmark, and several that were postmarked were marked as having arrived at the post office several days after they had been dropped in the mail.
  • There were many examples of envelopes dropped in the same mailbox at the same time arriving at their locations on different days.

U.S. Postal Service officials declined interview requests and responded to our questions by pointing to Postmaster General Loius DeJoy’s Aug. 24 Congressional testimony.

“We will do everything we can to handle and deliver election mail in a manner consistent with the proven processes and procedures that we have relied on for years,” he said. “Nevertheless, I encourage all Americans who choose to vote by mail to request their ballots early and to vote early, as a common sense best practice.”

The statement says cost-cutting measures which were reported to be occurring at Post Office locations nationwide this summer such as reducing overtime and collecting mailboxes — which DeJoy maintains he did not direct — were suspended until after the election.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Nationally the percentage of first class mail arriving on time was improving from a dip in July, according to USPS data released last week.

The Dayton Daily News has filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request for data on the number of complaints and timeliness of mail delivery locally. No response had been received by deadline.

Quarterly reports on the federal agency’s website show that from April through June this year in the Ohio Valley — a region stretching from Cincinnati to Columbus — 83.7% of single-piece first class mail was delivered within five days. Its target is 92.5%.

The percent of mail delivered within eight days in the Ohio Valley was 98.2%.

Postal Service officials said they have more than enough capacity to handle election mail, which is projected to amount to less than 2 percent of the total mail volume during the election season.

LaRose said that DeJoy told him and other state election officials on an Aug. 27 conference call that election mail will be expedited.

The Secretary of State’s office also said that the USPS will continue procedures put in place during the primary to ensure election mail is prioritized . That includes instituting “all clear” processes to ensure all election mail is processed each day, rechecking collection bins for late arriving ballots and tracking election mail deliveries to boards of elections.

“Secretary LaRose is encouraging Ohio voters to request an absentee ballot, complete them, and mail them back ASAP this election,” secretary of state spokeswoman Maggie Sheehan said.

USPS unions react

Leaders of Dayton-area unions representing postal employees said they were surprised by the newspaper’s findings.

John Oross, local president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said he couldn’t explain mail sent from the same box showing up on different days or not having postmarks. He speculated the service might have been affected by cost-cutting measures he said weren’t fully halted until after DeJoy’s Congressional testimony.

“I can attest to this: If it gets placed into the letter carrier’s hand, if it makes it through the system, the sortation and all that, and gets to the letter carrier, I guarantee it’s going to get delivered to the right address that day,” he said.

“We’re the most trusted government agency and we’ve been that way for decades,” he said. “We take pride in what we do. Letter carriers are going to deliver (in) rain, snow, sleet, shine, hail, coronavirus — we’re going to get it done.”

Karen Byars, president of the American Postal Workers Union Dayton local, said all mail should be postmarked and delivered together if mailed at the same time.

“I would be concerned about that,” she said of the Dayton Daily News findings.

Byars said the postmaster general should provide an explanation for the discrepancies, adding that all Dayton area mail is processed and postmarked through a plant in Columbus.

What we did

For our study, the Dayton Daily News analyzed voter registration files as of mid-August from the Ohio Secretary of State to identify the 38 cities and townships in Montgomery, Greene, Warren and Miami Counties with at least 5,000 registered voters.

For each 5,000 voters, the newspaper placed a blank piece of paper of similar stock to a ballot in an envelope, creating 121 test envelopes. Smaller areas like Oakwood or Xenia Twp. got one envelope each dropped in a mailbox in or near the jurisdiction.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

In larger cities and townships, we used multiple mailboxes. In Dayton, for example, a total of 17 test envelopes were mailed from Dayton View Triangle, Old North Dayton and downtown.

In total, we drove 340 miles, using 42 different mailboxes in rural and urban areas stretching from Piqua to Deerfield Twp. in southern Warren County.

Each envelope was mailed between Aug. 19 and Aug. 24 to a location in the same county and affixed with enough postage to be delivered first class.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Envelopes started arriving at their destinations within two days, and 104 (86%) showed up within five days. Sixteen more showed up in the following four days. One envelope took 12 days to deliver.

The last envelope arrived Sept. 2. It was one of five sent on Aug. 21 from a mailbox in front of Charlie’s Deli in Old North Dayton. Three of them arrived on Aug. 24. One arrived Aug. 29 bearing a Columbus postmark from Aug. 26.

The two envelopes that took nine days to arrive were both mailed in Greene County — one from the Target by the Mall at Fairfield Commons and the other from in front of the library in downtown Fairborn. In both cases, other envelopes mailed from the same boxes showed up days earlier.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Three envelopes were mailed on Aug. 20 from the post box in front of the old Warren County jail in Lebanon. They arrived on Aug. 24, 25 and 27. The last one to arrive had no markings on the outside of the envelope showing when it was mailed.

Despite all 121 envelopes being the same size and weight and postage, one envelope mailed from the post office in the village of Laura in Miami County arrived with a stamp saying 20 cents postage was due.

Votes not counted in primary

Elections officials say they see the same issues our investigation found.

In this year’s primary , 128 ballots in Warren County couldn’t be counted because they showed up after Election Day but weren’t postmarked.

Under Ohio law, in order for a vote to be counted, it must be postmarked by the day before the election and received within 10 days after the election.

“That was my biggest complaint this primary election. I’ve never in my 12 years here seen the amount of mail without the cancellation stamp (postmark),” Warren County Board of Elections Director Brian Sleeth said.

Montgomery County officials said they received four ballots after Election Day that couldn’t be counted because they lacked a postmark.

That wasn’t the only issue with mail-in ballots in this year’s primary. An earlier Dayton Daily News investigation found thousands of requests for absentee ballots showed up at boards of elections too late to get ballots to voters.

The Butler County Board of Elections during the primary couldn’t count more than 300 absentee ballots because an “unintentional missort” by the post office led them to be delivered too late.

Making sure your vote is counted

Montgomery County Board of Elections Director Jan Kelly said she’s “not shocked” by the newspaper’s findings but said investigations reveal inconsistencies, not vote fraud.

“I would say it’s post office incompetence, but not to a great scale,” she said.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Options to vote include:

- Vote in person at a county board of elections starting Oct. 6.

- Request a ballot by mail, but drop it off in person to local board of election’s secure drop box.

- Request ballots now, and mail it back as soon as possible. On Oct. 5 local boards of election are expected to begin sending out ballots that have been requested.

Voters can go to their board of elections website to check if their absentee ballot request application was received, when their ballot was mailed to them and when the ballot itself is received by the board.

In the last five days of August, the Montgomery County Board of Elections processed 11,142 absentee ballot requests. There were only 2,039 absentee ballot requests in all of August 2016 in the last presidential election.

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