When it comes to your ballot, will the post office deliver? We put it to the test

Investigations

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Many of you have told us about your mounting frustration with long delays and lost mail through the United States Postal Service.

With many voting by mail in the Nov. 3 election, WREG investigator Jessica Gertler put the postal service to the test.

Corey Mesler, the owner of Burke’s Book Store in Cooper-Young, said it’s hard for him to make it to polling places, so he chose to vote by mail in Shelby County’s elections back in August.

“They send me a form right away. I sent it right back. I thought it was perfect,” Mesler said.

Perfect, until he received a letter from the election commission three weeks later.

“Unfortunately, your ballot was not counted for the following reason … ,” it reads.

It goes on to state his ballot didn’t arrive in time, even though he says he sent it weeks before the deadline.

“It’s worrisome right?” he said.

That’s a feeling shared by others across Memphis.

Lisa Anderson told us that recently, her mail has been arriving late, or not at all.

“My husband had bought some tickets to a car show in Kentucky and his parents live next door to us. His dad got his tickets, and my husband never got his,” Anderson said. “It doesn’t make me feel good.”

Lori Olah said a letter sent Aug. 29 from her family in Arizona arrived to her Memphis home Sept. 24. It’s her latest mail issue.

“I don’t feel like I can rely on them to get my mail or bills, or even a birthday card or anything to me,” Olah said.

We put the post office to the test

While our post office experiment certainly wasn’t scientific, many of us at WREG sent mail from our homes, drop boxes and post offices across the Mid-South to see what would happen.

Twenty-five letters were sent from places like Highland Heights, East Memphis, downtown, North and South Memphis, Whitehaven, Mud Island, Midtown, Hickory Hill, DeSoto County, and Crittenden County, all within 30 miles of the letter’s destination.

Our results show 64% of them were delivered the next day, 28% in two days, and the rest arrived within four days.

At the Shelby County Election Commission, the results they have seen aren’t as promising.

Election Administrator Linda Phillips said she was concerned. In late September, she told us they’d just received two ballots, even though they were postmarked “well before the August election.”

Phillips said 27,000 people in Shelby County chose to vote by mail in November’s election. So far, 15,079 of those ballots have been mailed back to the commission.

In order to count, those ballots must be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day.

“I would suggest that they mail them as quickly as they get them,” she said.

USPS workers told WREG you can also pay to send your ballot Priority Mail. You have to go to a post office to do it. It’s $7.75, but it comes with a tracking number — just another way to see where your ballot is and when it’s delivered.

We decided to give that a shot, sending a dozen Priority letters, again across the county and state lines.

We decided to give that a shot .. sending a dozen priority letters.. again across the county and state lines.


We received all but one the next day. Tracking information shows a letter sent from Southaven was supposed to arrive october 14th, but it got stuck in a Memphis distribution center for 12 days.
We finally received it Monday.

We also had to pack our patience at some locations.

The day we went to a Southaven post office, there was a long, slow-moving line due to reported technical issues.

And at the post office in Highland Heights, we were told the only worker allowed to use the cash register went on break an hour before the place closed.

We waited until she got back. It took about 30 minutes to send the letter there.

Many factors in USPS delays

In August, the postmaster general played defense in front of House and Senate committee hearings over changes like moving equipment and limiting schedules to save money.

Critics say those changes, along with skyrocketing online sales and staffing issues due to COVID, has made the postal service less reliable in recent months.  

A spokesperson with the USPS only answered our questions regarding election mail, stating in part, they are “fully committed and actively working” to handle it.

They said USPS has allocated “additional resources” like “extra transportation, extra delivery and collection trips and overtime” to “ensure that Election Mail reaches its intended destination in a timely manner.”

As for Mesler, before finding out about his August ballot, he had already signed up to vote by mail in November’s election.

They told him to send in his ballot as soon as he received it, so he did, dropping it off at his post office last week.  

He says he used the state’s ballot tracker and got confirmation that it had arrived.

The Shelby County Election Commission said you can use express services like FedEx and UPS to send it. An important reminder — you must follow every step when filling out your ballot, or it will get thrown out.

The full USPS statement:

The U.S. Postal Service’s number one priority between now and the November election is the secure, timely delivery of the nation’s Election Mail.

As you see, the Postal Service is fully committed and actively working to handling the anticipated increase in Election Mail volume over the coming weeks. The anticipated volume of Election Mail will still be less than our holiday season volume which we successfully deliver every year. As the Postmaster General has already announced, we are deploying additional resources throughout October and continuing past Election Day.

The Postal Service has allocated additional resources, including, but not limited to, expanded processing procedures, extra transportation, extra delivery and collection trips, and overtime, to ensure that Election Mail reaches its intended destination in a timely manner.

Additionally, consistent with practices in past election cycles, the use of extraordinary measures beyond the normal course of operations is authorized and expected to be executed by local management between October 26 and November 24 to accelerate the delivery of ballots, when the Postal Service is able to identify the mailpiece as a ballot.

These extraordinary measures include, but are not limited to, expedited handling, extra deliveries and special pickups, as used in past elections, to connect blank ballots entered by election officials to voters, or completed ballots returned by voters entered close to or on Election Day to their intended destination (e.g., Priority Mail Express, Sunday deliveries, special deliveries, running collected ballots to Boards of Elections on Election Day, etc.).

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