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Postal delays could cause trouble for Michigan’s primary election

Michigan is one of 13 states with an absentee ballot request deadline close enough to the election that there’s a “high risk” ballots won’t be delivered to voters before the election, according to an audit by the U.S. Postal Service’s internal watchdog.

The findings came shortly before a national policy change that’s likely to further slow down mail delivery before Tuesday’s primary.

And while elections and postal officials maintain election-related mail will be expedited, some Michigan clerks are already reporting mail delays and worry they may impact not only the primary but the Nov. 3 general election as well.

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said it’s recently taken more than three weeks for her to send death certificates and other mail even within a 15-mile radius. 

“If it’s grandma’s medication now, it’s likely going to be ballots later,” Byrum said, referring to mail delays. “It’s extraordinarily concerning when we’re coming into election season when any mail slows down.”

The stakes are high: In Michigan, it doesn’t matter when you send your ballot, only when it’s received. Ballots that reach local clerks after Election Day don’t count, even if they’re postmarked before it. 

How to check if clerks received your ballot

Election officials recommend voters drop mail-in ballots off in person at their local clerk’s office or in a drop box to ensure they count in the Aug. 4 primary election. 

If you mailed it and want to ensure it reached your clerk, check here by entering your voter registration information. If it hasn’t been received by the end of the week, many local officials recommend you go into the clerk’s office over the weekend or on Monday before 4 p.m. to spoil your old ballot and cast a new one in person.

Sparked by 2018 reforms allowing no-reason absentee voting and the coronavirus, an unprecedented number of people are voting by mail in Michigan’s 2020 elections. They were helped by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who used $4.5 million in federal funds to mail absentee ballot applications to the state’s 7.7 million registered voters.

As of Tuesday — one week before the primary — the total number of returned ballots was 903,717, nearly three times the 307,253 returned at the same time in 2016. Nearly 2 million people have requested mail-in ballots, more than 3 ½  times the 540,271 requested at the same time in 2016.

That 2018 policy expanding voting rights also extended deadlines for people to register to vote and to request absentee ballots. Now, the last day to request a ballot for the August election in the mail is Friday. 

However, that leaves only three mailing days for voters to receive the ballot and return it to the clerk. On average, mail delivery takes two to five days depending on location. 

“In our opinion, ballots requested less than seven days before an election are at a high risk of not being delivered, completed by voters, and returned to the election offices in time,” read a July report by the USPS Office of Inspector General reviewing mail-in voting in Milwaukee.

The report followed an internal investigation requested by Wisconsin lawmakers who feared absentee ballots weren’t delivered quickly enough in the state’s April election. The Inspector General found that the postal service had failed to deliver hundreds of ballots.

Meanwhile, several clerks who spoke with Bridge said they’re hearing of unusually slow mail delivery. Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons, a Republican, and Macomb County Clerk Fred Miller, a Democrat, said some local clerks in their counties are reporting postal delays. 

New Baltimore City Clerk Marcia Shinska said she’s received around a dozen calls from voters in the last several weeks saying they hadn’t received a requested absentee ballot despite her office sending it out more than two weeks beforehand. 

To combat these potential delays, Benson and other election officials are encouraging voters to drop off their absentee ballot to their local clerks in person. 

“This close to the primary, Michiganders should return their absentee ballots to their clerk’s office directly, or submit them via their local ballot drop box, in order to ensure their vote is counted,” Benson said in a press release Tuesday. The department also recommended voters who haven’t yet requested a ballot go in to their clerk to get one rather than request it be sent in the mail. 

Voters can see if there’s a ballot drop box in their community here

The Postal Service has raised similar flags in recent months. In a letter to elections officials from late May, USPS General Counsel Thomas Marshall wrote that if a state requires ballots be received by Election Day, “voters should be aware of the possibility that completed ballots mailed less than a week before that date may not, in fact, arrive by the state's deadline.”

And if a state allows ballot requests shortly before Election Day, as Michigan does, “voters should be made aware that the absentee ballot may not reach the voter before Election Day if requested less than a week before the election.”

The complaints follow a recent cost-cutting change from U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. President Donald Trump had previously derided the postal service as inefficient and costly. 

Before the change, postal workers would stay in distribution centers until all of the mail for their route was sorted and ready to be sent out, said Michigan Postal Workers Union President Michael Mize. They may not leave until 10 a.m., but they’d ensure everyone on their route gets their mail that day. 

Under the new policy, postal workers are required to leave the distribution center by 9 a.m., regardless of whether all the mail for their route is sorted that day. Whatever isn’t ready is pushed to the next day’s delivery. Agency leaders hope this reduces costs for overtime and multiple trips to ensure timely delivery, Mize said. 

“Eventually this [is] going to cause long-term, large delays if we don’t do something,” Mize said. 

Mize predicted the longest mail delays may be experienced by those who live near the largest distribution centers in the state. The biggest is the Michigan Metroplex in Pontiac, but other large centers are in Detroit and Grand Rapids.

Spokespeople for USPS and the Secretary of State’s office said ballots and other election-related mail shouldn’t be affected by any delays because the agency requires postal workers to sift out ballots and other election-related mail and prioritize it for processing. 

Elizabeth Najduch, spokesperson for USPS’ Detroit District, said the agency “is committed to delivering election mail in a timely manner” and that it uses “a robust and proven process” to ensure proper handling of election mail. 

However, there were “some delays in which mailpiece design issues may have been a factor” in Michigan’s presidential primary election in March, she said, which “were addressed with local election officials.”

Michigan Secretary of State spokesperson Jake Rollow said the agency has worked with postal service to redesign ballot mailings to fit postal service specifications so they can be identified and processed quickly. 

“We’re in daily communication with the postal service here in Michigan, and what they’re doing on a daily basis is clearing their system of ballots,” he said. “They’re working every day to ensure that ballots aren’t sitting overnight with them but that they’re moving each day.”

Still, Najduch said it’s incumbent upon voters to understand their state’s deadlines. She recommended voters request a ballot around two weeks before Election Day and mail it back at least one week beforehand. For August, it’s already too late to follow her guidance — for the Nov. 3 presidential election, that would mean requesting an absentee ballot by October 19 and sending it back by Oct. 27.

But some election officials’ concerns persist, including fears there could be worse ahead in the fall. 

Early in the pandemic, Postal Service leaders told lawmakers in Congress that the service was losing so much money it may collapse by September. The agency received some stimulus money in March, but Trump has threatened to withhold further funding if the agency doesn’t raise its prices. 

USPS is temporarily buoyed by an uptick in packages as Americans are stuck inside and are leaning more heavily on online retail. The Washington Post reported that with current package volumes, the agency won’t need a major financial bailout until October 2021. If those decrease, it may run out of money sooner.

Byrum of Ingham County said she fears the agency could face insolvency before the November election, which is “extremely concerning” for mail-in voting. 

Najduch of the Postal Service said the agency’s financial condition won’t impact its ability to deliver election mail. 

“The Postal Service has ample capacity to adjust our nationwide processing and delivery network to meet projected election and political mail volume,” she said.

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