JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – With concerns about vote by mail and the ability of the U.S. Postal Service to handle what’s expected to be historic numbers of mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 election, the I-TEAM is putting USPS to the test. Our investigative team spent four weeks performing an experiment that is exposing some flaws within the postal system — specifically damaged mail.
To get an accurate measure of mail delivery times, I-TEAM investigator Tarik Minor simulated the mail in the election process as closely as possible by stuffing 96 envelopes with “mock ballots” and a “mock privacy sleeve” — to mimic the actual weight and size of the ballot you might be mailing from eight home or blue mailbox locations throughout the city of Jacksonville.
We sent a total of 12 envelopes from each location over a four-week period to Channel 4′s TV station located on the Southbank. Out of the 96 mock ballots, 100% of them arrived at their destination:
- 51 arrived the next business day
- 35 arrived within two business days
- 8 arrived in three or four business days
- 2 arrived in six business days
One of the letters that took six business days to arrive was mailed from a Dunn Avenue blue mailbox. That’s not counting the two weekends, and Labor Day, in between the time it was sent and received.
The second letter that took six business days to arrive was mailed from a hard-to-find blue mailbox on the side of the Dillard’s at St. Johns Town Center, located in an area next to a large trash receptacle as pictured above. The travel time does not count two weekends that fell in between the time the letter was mailed to the time it was received.
During our experiment, six of the 96 letters we mailed arrived damaged. Some arrived in plastic bags from being wet and others appeared to be torn or opened:
- Four mailed from the blue mailbox on the side of Dillard’s at St. Johns Town Center
- One mailed from a neighborhood mailbox off San Pablo Road
- One mailed from a blue mailbox near the Gateway Mall on Norwood Avenue
We wondered if the condition of the mail was unique to our experiment. Duval County Election Supervisor Mike Hogan told us no. “It does happen, and I would say it’s not rare but it’s not common and we’d be nowhere near — even at 1% if I were to guess,” said Hogan. “You always remember when you see them in a plastic bag and how it’s been torn up.”
Duval County elections officials showed us what was left of a mangled ballot that arrived for the August primary. Nearly 50 percent of the envelope and ballot inside were torn and missing.
Elections officials tell the I-TEAM when damage to the mail occurs, elections workers simply try their best to count that vote. “If they come in wet, typically the black ink on the markings is going to be fine but getting it out of the envelope and processing it is a little bit difficult. So, we’ll let it dry, we’ll set it on a table and let it dry out and then painstakingly, almost like a surgeon, make sure that we don’t tear anything as we try to get that ballot out of that envelope,” Hogan said.
Hogan said he thinks the initial damage to the mail usually occurs in the owner’s mailbox, saying historically, tropical storms and heavy rains have led to their office receiving higher than usual amounts of damaged mail.
If your ballot is damaged, Hogan said his office will not contact the voter. Instead, it’s up to the voter to track his or her ballot, to make sure it has arrived and successfully been counted.
“No, it’s not something that we would normally do. Again, number one, it’s very infrequent. We process what we can,” he said.
The voters we spoke with are torn on whether they trust USPS with their ballots.
Florida Association of Letter Carrier President Al Friedman told the I-TEAM mail sent from a blue mailbox has a higher chance of being damaged based on the condition of the blue mailbox. Friedman said some of the doors on the older blue mailboxes are not operational, and sometimes the door does not remain sealed over time.
The I-TEAM asked USPS to let us inside one of its mail processing centers to show us how they’ll handle election mail but the agency denied our request.
Options to turn in vote-by-mail ballots:
- Mail using the U.S. Postal Service
- Drop off at the Supervisor of Elections Office in the county where you live
- Once early voting begins, drop your ballot off at an early-voting site during voting hours
- On Election Day, no vote-by-mail ballots can be dropped off. However, you can vote in person at your assigned precinct.
What’s been your experience with the mail? Weigh in below: