HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FLA — This year more people are opting to send their ballots by mail instead of voting in person due to the coronavirus pandemic. In recent months, there have been reports of slowdowns within the United States Postal Service because of COVID-19 and amid proposed changes by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, that have since been reversed.
In the Tampa Bay Area, we have not heard stories of significant slow downs. But ahead of the surge of mail-in ballots being sent, we wanted to put the system to the test. We conducted an experiment, sending mail across our largest county.
We set up a PO Box at the Post Office located at 10121 E Adamo Drive in Tampa. That is the closest post office, according to Google Maps, to the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office. We bought 100 6”x9” envelopes and 100 First Class stamps. We addressed them all to the PO Box and used that for the return addresses.
We mapped out locations across Hillsborough County to send the envelopes from. We made sure to pick some of the densely populated cities and the most rural ones.
Some of the places we dropped the envelopes include Lutz, Town n Country, Wimauma, Syndey, Thonotosassa and Seffner.
On Wednesday, August 26, we visited 49 collection boxes and post offices throughout the county. In each, we dropped at least two envelopes. The collection boxes have varying pick up times so we made sure every envelope was dropped before a letter carrier picked them up.
The first time we checked the PO Box was Saturday August 29 and 97 envelopes were there. USPS says first class mail arrives in one to three business days.
The three missing envelopes were from Valrico, Lutz, and Sydney. The other envelopes that were sent from those boxes had arrived.
We checked the box again on Monday, August 31. No envelopes were there. When we checked on Tuesday, September 1, two more envelopes had arrived. They were from Lutz and Sydney.
On Wednesday, September 2, it was one week since we sent all 100 envelopes. When we checked the PO Box, the envelope from Valrico was still not there. As of September 22, that envelope still hasn’t arrived to the PO Box.
We reached out to the United States Postal Service, asking for statistics regarding how many items aren’t delivered each year. We also asked if people should be concerned about sending their ballots via first class mail. We were sent this press release from August 31 discussing service improvements. David Walton, a USPS Corporate Communications team member, also said via email, “In some areas we are more affected by the COVID-19 pandemic than in others. We are working through these challenges to ensure consistent service for our customers, including increasing hiring based on local need.”
We wanted to ask an expert about our experiment so we spoke with Mike Searle, President of Tampa Area Local American Postal Workers Union. He does not speak for the Postal Service but does have decades of experience working for USPS. We showed him the 99 envelopes and he said there weren’t any issues he saw with the handwriting that should have created any issues in delivering them. He was disappointed to hear one still hasn’t been delivered.
“That’s disappointing because the postal service has a much better record than that,” said Searle.
We asked him about some of the possibilities. What could have happened to that last envelope?
“There’s always a chance that it could have been destroyed in a machine. And I wouldn’t want to alarm anyone by them thinking, oh the Post Office is tearing up mail.’ But we have some pretty high speed sorting machines and mail is damaged,” said Searle.
He also said the envelope could still be somewhere.
“It could still show. It might have got misdirected to another office. It would have been Honolulu or Alaska and may be returning still,” said Searle.
Searle says USPS employees work every day to make sure the items that are sent get delivered.
“In the morning, they sweep the machines, they sweep the floor, they have maintenance crawling through the rafters looking for mail that might have fell out of conveyor belts. We have nets hanging places where mail falls sometimes. It’s what postal employees have dedicated their career to do is moving the mail.”
Our sister station in Orlando did a similar experiment and 95 of their 100 envelopes arrived within a week. The remaining envelopes arrived later. One of them was damaged and placed in a plastic bag.
We wanted to do this experiment ahead of the surge of mail-in ballots being sent. But the envelopes we mailed are only similar in size to the return envelopes for ballots. They clearly state, “Official Election Mail” and you’re able to track them.
“You can opt in with a cell number and or an email address and we will notify you as soon as that ballot hits our office. We’re going to let you know that we received it and if there’s an issue we’ll be contacting you immediately,” said Craig Latimer, Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections.
He suggests mailing your ballot early and tracking it. The return envelope in Hillsborough County says allow eight days for it to be delivered.
Latimer says if Election Day is nearing and your ballot hasn’t been received, reach out to your Supervisor of Elections. They can send you another ballot or you can vote in person.
In Hillsborough County, you’re also able to drop your mail-in ballot off at the Supervisor of Elections offices or at the early voting sites.