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NBC4: You've Got Mail? Tracking Hundreds of Letters Around the Country

Washington, September 29, 2020
NBC4, JODIE FLEISCHER, RICH YARBOROUGH, LANCE ING, and JEFF PIPER

The News4 I-Team continues to hear from voters concerned about slow or inconsistent mail delivery and fear about mailing ballots in the upcoming election.

So once again News4 teamed up with NBC partners across the country to test the mail service throughout our area.

A total of 426 letters were all mailed on the same September day. Some were sent around the corner, others across the country.

"We've been having a postal service since Ben Franklin's days, all my life, and I'm not gonna tell you my age, but I've never seen where you've had the issue with mail like this," said Joyce Harris, who lives in Northeast D.C.

She said in a good week she gets mail maybe three days. Sending mail is even worse, she said.

"I sent out a sympathy card. I have since gone to the memorial service for this loved one and they haven't gotten the sympathy card yet. And they live in the DMV area," Harris said.

The I-Team found distance isn't a problem. Almost all of the 24 letters the I-Team mailed locally from D.C. reached their destinations in two or three business days, just as the postal service promises. But a letter from Dallas to D.C. took seven days to arrive.

"This becomes very important because of the type of mail that you're relying on coming to your mailbox," said Harris.

For her, it's the mail-order medicine she takes every day. She said she’s run out of pills and had to go to the military base to pick up more in person, even during the coronavirus crisis. But that’s not even her biggest concern.

"I don't want my vote to not count," said Harris. "I don't want it to be 10 days after the election and you might see my ballot; I don't want that."

That won't happen according to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who recently spoke with the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.

"The American public needs to know we are prepared and committed to deliver election mail," DeJoy said.

Ray Robinson with the local postal workers union for the nation's capital and Southern Maryland agrees, even though this summer had the worst mail delays he's seen.

"The morale is down because it's in the DNA of postal employees to do everything possible to get the mail out on time," said Robinson

Robinson faults a DeJoy order forcing mail trucks to leave on time, even when they aren't fully loaded.

"In the past, the drivers would wait until all the mail was given to them. But now when they have a cut off time, that means some mail is left, which cause delays because it keeps building up," Robinson said.

DeJoy has since clarified that policy and says the resulting service delays have lessened.

"I worked with the team to get those trucks to run on time with the mail in 'em. That was the, that was the reaction. That was a good plan. We had we could've had a better execution," DeJoy said.

The Postal Service said delays have also been worsened by the pandemic. An estimated 40,000 workers have had to quarantine. Staff shortages in COVID hotspots could also continue through the election season.

"Yes, I believe the Postal Service can handle it. But as citizens who choose to vote by mail, anyone doing so should put their ballot in the mail as early as possible,” Virginia Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger told the I-Team.

She recently surveyed Virginia voters about their mail service and said she heard from more than 1,200 in just a weekend.

"The delays that we've seen mean a backlog of mail. And for ballots that must be returned by a certain point in time, that leaves the potential that one's vote won't count," Spanberger said.

Albeit a small potential: 88% of the I-Team’s letters arrived in one-to-three days, 97% made it within five days and 98% made it within a week. But after two weeks, two letters still hadn't arrived. One letter is still missing as of publishing.

"If it's your mail that has trouble, that's your vote. That's your voice," said Spanberger.

Spanberger said if just 1% of the letters had trouble, that's significant, with polls showing as many as 75 million people planning to vote by mail.

NBC stations did a similar test in August and found one letter took a month to get from Chicago to New York City. Another one from New York to Houston still hasn't arrived. It's been more than six weeks.

"I think it's great that you all are conducting these tests and educating voters on what it is. While perhaps unscientific, it is wholly relevant to the individual experiences that people are having," Spanberger said.

Joyce Harris would love to just vote and mail back her ballot. In D.C. all 500,000 registered voters will get a ballot mailed whether they requested one or not. But Harris said she doesn't have confidence in the system.

"I don't have it right now like I used to, ya know, and I wish it was something that can really, seriously be done," said Harris.

Beginning later this week, the Postal Service said it will add additional resources, including transportation, to help support the timely and expeditious handling of election mail.

But if you are going to vote by mail, the best advice from the postal service, its workers and the politicians is fill out your ballot and send it back as soon as you get it.

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