Mail-in voting, for many, is as simple as sending a letter, but rules vary across the country for when a voter can get their ballot and when it should be returned. In 2016, more than 73,000 out of 33 million mail-in ballots arrived too late to be counted.
Many Americans are expected to vote by mail for the first time in November 2020 because of coronavirus concerns, so "CBS This Morning" sent out 100 mock ballots, simulating 100 voters in locations across Philadelphia, in an experiment to see how long one should give themselves to make sure their vote counts.
"We're gonna see somewhere between probably 80 and 100 million voters receiving their ballot that way," former Arizona election official Tammy Patrick told "CBS This Morning" co-host Tony Dokoupil. Patrick is now a senior adviser for the elections program at Democracy Fund.
For the experiment, a P.O. box was set up to represent a local election office. A few days after the initial ballots were mailed, 100 more were sent.
The mock ballots used the same size envelope and same class of mail as real ballots, and even had mock votes folded in to approximate the weight. The biggest difference: real mail-in ballots have a logo that is meant to expedite them. "CBS This Morning" was unable to include those the trial.
A week after initial ballots were sent, most ballots appeared to be missing from the P.O. box.
"I don't see anything back there for you," a postal worker told Dokoupil when he received the mail. "That's all I have back there right now."
After asking for a manager and explaining the situation to them, the votes were found.
"They had them somewhere else," the postal worker said.
Then, another problem — missorted mail.
"We got a birthday card from Mike to Ronnie," Dokoupil said, as he read a postcard mistakenly placed in "CBS This Morning's" P.O. box. "Have a sweet b-day. Get it? There's a bee on top."
The postcard, along with another piece of missorted mail, was then sent to the correct recipient.
Out of the initial batch mailed a week earlier, 97 out of 100 votes had arrived. Three simulated persons, or 3% of voters, were effectively disenfranchised by mail by giving their ballots a week to arrive. In a close election, 3% could be pivotal.
Four days after mailing the second batch of mock ballots, 21% of the votes hadn't arrived.
According to Postal Service recommendations, "voters should mail their return ballots at least one week prior to the due date."
However, nearly half of all states still allow voters to request ballots less than a week before the election.
Tammy Patrick said many states' mail-in voting policies simply do not take the postal system into account.
"So states like Ohio, you can request your ballot on Saturday up until noon for Tuesday's election," Patrick explained. "And that is the worst possible thing… you are setting up the voters with false expectations, and you're setting them up to fail."
Some Americans say they are hesitant to trust the U.S. Postal Service, despite pandemic concerns.
"I'm scared that it might get lost in the mail," potential voter Kim Tucker said. "I just want to make sure that my vote is submitted, like, I see that it's submitted, that it actually counts."
Another person, Shannon Zebley, said she "never" trusted the postal service and has "absolutely" had things lost in the mail in the past.
"I just don't trust the mail," yet another person, Laura Okechukwu said simply.
When Dokoupil shared the results of the experiment with Philadelphia Commissioner Lisa Deeley, she said the results were better than she expected.
After nearly 15,000 votes arrived late in Philadelphia's June primary, Deeley, who helps oversee elections, said voters are right to be wary.
"I can guarantee that I'm gonna get you your ballot, and if I get it back in time, it's gonna be counted," she said. "But I have no way of guaranteeing what happens in the postal service."
The postmaster general declined "CBS This Morning's" request for an interview, but in an emailed statement, the postal service said it was "committed to delivering election mail in a timely manner."
Part of the statement goes on to say, "We employ a robust and proven process to ensure proper handling of all Election Mail, including ballots. This includes close coordination and partnerships with election officials at the local and state levels. As we anticipate that many voters may choose to use the mail to participate in the upcoming elections due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are conducting and will continue to proactively conduct outreach with state and local election officials and Secretaries of State so that they can make informed decisions and educate the public about what they can expect when using the mail to vote. As part of these outreach efforts, we will discuss our delivery processes and will consult with election officials about how they can design their mailings in a manner that comports with postal regulations, improves mailpiece visibility, and ensures efficient and cost-effective processing and delivery."
They recommended voters go to their Election Mail Kit & Resources page for more information, and also go to their site for up-to-date information on service alerts and how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting U.S. mail systems.
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