Question: There have been several claims that USPS carriers are deliberately throwing out Vote by Mail ballots either en route to the voter or when the voter sends their voted ballot back to the election office. How true are the rumors?
This is a rumor that refuses to die, and I’m not going to insult anybody’s intelligence by suggesting that it’s never happened. Every election, there are a couple of stories about mail carriers going rogue on their route. However, one of the reasons it makes the news is because it’s comparatively rare.
Most recently, it was revealed that a postal worker in West Virginia was discovered altering mail ballot requests by attempting to change the voter’s party affiliation, which is listed on the request form. While that’s still illegal, it’s not as detrimental as if ballots had been stolen or disposed of outright.
Responsible Postal Workers
The vast majority of postal workers take their election mail duties very seriously. A disproportionately high number of retired postal workers end up as poll workers! However, there are a few who are malicious actors. While intercepting a route’s worth of mail ballots is a potential risk, odds are high that the perpetrator will be caught. Stealing mail is a serious federal offense, and the punishment isn’t worth having a federal felony record and losing a job and pension in the process.
In the days of ballot trackers, mail ballots in many jurisdictions have the ability to determine when a ballot is received by the voter, when the ballot has been returned, and whether or not it was tabulated. If a large batch of ballots headed for a specific neighborhood doesn’t get tracked as “Received” or the ballots never make it back, it’s going to send up red flags with the election office. They’ll probably have a long chat with the local postmaster about where those ballots went.
If there is no ballot tracking software in place, that does increase the chances of a malicious or inexperienced postal worker to intercept the ballots, or lose the ballots due to carelessness. Sometimes things get so busy at the postal hub that a worker doesn’t get the chance to postmark ballots that require one to be valid. Also, overworked drivers may be behind on their delivery route. Sometimes mail trucks catch fire (it happens more than you think!) or get swept away in floods. Finally, if there’s a labor strike or a postal hub is closed for extended periods of time (e.g. the Opa-Locka hub in Florida back in 2018), ballots may not get returned in the time period allowed.
There are ways for voters to ensure that their ballot is safe through all steps of the mail voting process:
1) Make sure your mailing address is updated with the local election office
The election office mails out the ballots, so they have to be kept apprised of any changes. Vote by Mail ballots cannot be forwarded by law. Stray ballots with no voters to deliver to increase the potential for malicious actors to steal, destroy, or forge signatures on ballot envelope.
2) Get to know your mail carrier
Voting by mail is infinitely easier when the mail carrier likes you. Surprise them with a box of donuts or give them a thank you card.
3) Make sure your ballot request has been received by the election office on time
Not every jurisdiction has universal Vote by Mail. Both New York and Texas make voters request mail ballots before every election. If you can join a Permanent VBM list, it’s a good start.
4) Subscribe to the election office’s ballot notification service if one is available
5) Ballot trackers are a fantastic innovation, and some jurisdictions do text alerts for each part of the ballot process. Others are on the election website for voters to look up themselves.
6) If the ballot doesn’t arrive, start asking around
Maybe the neighbors have had ballots go missing. Maybe the ballot was sent to a former address. Or pehaps the ballots were sent out late. There are plenty of possibilities to rule out.
7) Have a chat with the local election office and the local postmaster if ballots keep going missing.
They have legal remedies and access to state and federal investigators that you probably will not have.
8) When in doubt, drop your ballot at the election office or a designated ballot dropbox
Many places now have dropboxes for local voters to return their ballots, and they definitely keep the chain of custody to a minimum.
With all this, I still think Vote by Mail is a great way to vote. It’s how I cast my ballot and it’s how millions of Americans cast theirs. There will be hiccups in the process, particularly for jurisdictions new to Vote by Mail. It’s essential to keep the lines of communication open between the election office, postmaster, mail carriers, and voters. If there’s a problem, everyone should be notified. Otherwise, it can’t be investigated or resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.