WRAL Investigates

Local mail system passes WRAL test of timely absentee ballot delivery

Posted September 10, 2020 8:17 p.m. EDT
Updated September 10, 2020 8:20 p.m. EDT

— With a flood of absentee ballots expected to be mailed this fall, many have questioned whether the U.S. Postal Service will be able to get the ballots to county election boards in time for the votes to be counted.

In recent presidential election years, 3 to 4 percent of voters have cast their ballots by mail. But those weren't held during a pandemic, when most people are trying to limit their contact in public.

"We’re look at a perhaps seven- to 10-fold increase, but we’re also seeing a lot more come in early, which we think means that people will be more interested in sending their ballot back early," said Damon Circosta, chairman of the State Board of Elections.

Nearly 740,000 absentee ballots have already been requested, which is more than 10 percent of all North Carolinians who are registered to vote and 15 times ahead of the pace four years ago. The deadline for requesting an absentee ballot is Oct. 27, so thousands more requests will likely be made in the coming weeks.

So WRAL Investigates put the local postal service to the test, devising an experiment to track exactly how long it could take a ballot to reach the Wake County Board of Elections.

Envelopes the exact size of those used for mail-in ballots were stuffed with paper to mimic the weight of a ballot inside and addressed WRAL's station on Western Boulevard. Each was then mailed first-class from all over Wake County.

WRAL employees sent the envelopes from their home and apartment mailboxes, and some were sent from mailboxes at post offices across the county.

The result: the Postal Service was mostly speedy and on time.

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Envelopes mailed from homes in north Raleigh, Apex and Morrisville made it to their destination in just two days, as did one sent from a postal box near the station.

The majority of envelopes arrived in three days. Mailing directly from a post office box, even late on a Friday afternoon, seemed to be especially fast – one dropped at 4:45 p.m. on a Friday in Rolesville arrived in central Raleigh by Monday morning.

A few envelopes, from personal mailboxes around the county, took four days, and just one from a northwest Raleigh neighborhood took five days.

"The local postal authorities have been in direct contact with our executive director, Karen Bell, and they’re making sure that they’re doing everything possible to ensure we don’t have any delays in mail processing both to the voter and as the voter returns their absentee vote by mail ballot to us," Circosta said. "We’re very confident we’re going to be able to receive your ballot and get your ballot to you through the Postal Service."

Elections officials are implementing a bar code system and software called BalloTrax to help track mailed ballots through the system, he said.

"Once you request your absentee ballot and you receive your absentee ballot, there’ll be a code on there by which you can track it, not just as it relates to us at the Board of Elections, but as it goes through the postal stream," he said. "You’ll be able to know where your ballot is from the time it leaves your house to the time it is processed through and ready for tabulation at the Board of Elections."

To be counted, mailed ballots have to be postmarked by Election Day, Nov. 3, and arrive at the couty board of elections by 5 p.m. on Nov. 6.

Postal Service officials insist the system has the capacity to handle a a surge in mailed ballots, but they urged voters to allow extra time to receive and send their ballots. They suggested requesting absentee ballots by Oct. 19 – 15 days before Election Day – and returning them no later than Oct. 27 – a week ahead of the election.

"Even if all Americans were to vote by mail this year, 330 million ballots over the course of the election would be only three-quarters of what the Postal Service delivers in one single day," postal officials said in a statement. "The U.S. mail remains a secure, efficient and effective means for citizens to participate in the electoral process, and the Postal Service is proud to serve as a critical component of our nation’s democratic process."

Circosta noted the Postal Service isn't the only way to get absentee ballots to elections officials. They can be dropped off at the county elections office or at an early voting site between Oct. 15 and Oct. 31.

"One thing we’re asking all our voters to do is, as soon as soon as they’ve made their decision and are ready to cast their ballot, we ask them to do that as early as they’re comfortable," he said. "The goal is early is better. Obviously, we have some safeguards in to make sure that we count every ballot so long as they come in by the deadline."

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