With mounting concerns about a mail slowdown ahead of the fall election – NBC 5 Investigates teamed up with our other NBC Owned Television Stations, Telemundo, and NBCLX, mailing dozens of letters to see if they would arrive as fast as the post office promises customers.
Our test, while certainly not scientific, suggests if you plan to vote by mail you may want to send your ballot long before the final week leading up to Election Day.
One out of every 10 first class letters we sent letters arrived just a bit later than the U.S. Postal Service told customers to expect. And two letters had not arrived after two weeks, leaving us to wonder if spotty delays could impact voters in some cities.
On its website, the United States Postal Service said first class mail should arrive in 1-3 business days. But for some who use the mail system daily, the USPS seems hard-pressed to meet that promise these days.
“I had a vendor, you know, calling me constantly and begging for a check. I had mailed it and two months later, it still hadn't arrived,” said Brett Bowden, owner of Printed Threads, a T-shirt printing company in Fort Worth that relies on the mail service to send loads of package and letters each day.
Bowden said the unexpected delays he experiences make him wonder if ballots may also arrive late, like some of the letters and packages he sends.
“I can't trust a check to get to a vendor, why would I trust another piece of paper to make it?” Bowden said.
In July, the postal service’s own stats showed a sudden drop in on-time performance.
Postal workers blamed overtime cuts and the removal of some mail sorting machines, prompting protests across the country along with an outcry in Congress accusing Republican President Donald Trump of trying to block mail-in votes.
So NBC 5 Investigates set out to see the state of the mail service for ourselves.
Investigative teams at our NBC, Telemundo and NBCLX locations across the country addressed letters to each other and dropped them in the mail.
Some letters destined for other cities across the country while others were sent to local addresses within our own metropolitan areas. In all, our group mailed 155 first class letters on Aug. 14.
The encouraging news, 88% of letters sent arrived within the 1-3 days the post office promises customers mailing between most major U.S. cities.
Within five days, 98% of the letters had arrived. But after 14 days, two letters were still not delivered. Postal union leaders told us they're not surprised to see some spotty delays.
“We've been able to track mail that we found it was sitting in place for eight and nine and 10 days. That should never happen,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union.
Postal workers union leaders in Dallas also report trouble in some neighborhoods, where mail has been significantly delayed after mail wound up stuck at sorting facilities longer than expected.
“We've already had customers missing medication, documents or even packages that they really need,” said Jonathon Cage, executive vice-president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 732.
Union leaders said one of the biggest problems contributing to the delays is a new post office policy that required trucks to leave at specific times, even if all of the mail that’s supposed to be on the truck hasn’t been loaded yet.
The new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, acknowledged the truck timing troubles in recent testimony to Congress.
“Our production processing within the plants was not fully aligned with this established schedule so we have some delays in the mail and our recovery process in this should have been a few days, and it amounted to be a few weeks,” DeJoy said.
DeJoy added that once mail sorting catches up to the new streamlined truck schedule, he believes more mail will arrive on time while also saving money for the financially strapped USPS.
More On USPS Delays
“I don't care what the figures say about on-time truck departures, I care about whether your mail is on that truck,” said Dimondstein.
In a statement to the NBC stations participating in our mail test, the USPS said it is addressing what it calls a "temporary service decline" and it is "committed to delivering election mail in a timely manner."
Union leaders agree -- the post office should have no problem handling millions of ballots.
“We have a process and it's normally all-hands-on-deck to actually move that,” Cage said.
But some post office watchdogs warn voters to plan ahead.
“We do not want the postal service getting slammed up at the very last second,” said Kevin Kosar with the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think-tank.
Even if most mail arrives on time in October and November, Kosar said he would not want to risk his ballot arriving late.
NBC 5 Investigates
In our NBC experiment, we saw 88% delivery in 1-3 business days. Which isn’t bad unless your ballot is one of the 12% that didn’t arrive as quickly as you expected. In the last election, about 32 million Americans voted by mail. If 12% of those ballots arrived late it would amount to more than 3.5 million votes.
In this election, the number of mail-in ballots is expected to soar with many states making it easier for people to vote by mail due to concerns about COVID-19.
“I think that anyone who is voting this autumn should be requesting their absentee ballot forms now, if not previously, and they should be returning them promptly. We want to flatten the mail curve,” Kosar said.