nbc 5 investigates

NBC 5 Investigates: More Texans Want to Track Absentee Ballots in Real Time

Latest NBC mail test shows national decline, improvement in DFW

NBCUniversal, Inc.

For a third and final time before the November election, NBC 5 put the U.S. Postal Service to the test to see how often mail is being delivered on time.

Along with other NBC Owned Television Stations and NBCLX our team sent more than 800 letters on a single day. Some between cities across the county and some within local areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth.

In the DFW area, the most recent round of letters showed some improvement in on-time performance, particularly at one post office in Dallas. But nationally, we saw a decline in on-time arrival compared to our August, and September tests.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, NBC 5 Investigates tracked letters this time – with help from a company that uses technology to see where any slow-downs happen in the mail.

Some voters have been telling NBC 5 they wish they could track their absentee ballots the same way.

Delivery companies like UPS and FedEx allow customers to track packages through each point in the delivery process. Sometimes right down to the truck that's on the way to its final destination.

So, why can't Texas voters do the same with their absentee ballots?

Across the country, some states and counties are now offering voters more sophisticated mail ballot tracking.

NBC 5 Investigates saw firsthand how those systems work in our latest mail test. This time, each envelope we sent had a barcode on it, added with help from a company called Prolist and their sister company, SnailWorks.

SnailWorks President Dave Lewis and his team track millions of pieces of mail every day for commercial clients.

As mail moves through the system, those barcodes are repeatedly scanned by the postal service and Snailworks gets the scan information in real-time through the postal service’s informed visibility program.

“It's easy. It's a relatively easy thing to do. It's very low cost,” said Lewis.

So, if there are problems with the letters sent by NBC 5 investigates, the barcodes should show where they got slowed down.

For this test, NBC 5 Investigates also doubled the number of letters sent in September from 50 to 100 and mailed them from additional locations checking the on-time performance in all four of the largest DFW area counties. The team mailed 25 letters from a mailbox outside the post office on 8th Avenue in Fort Worth, 25 from the post office on Colorado Boulevard in Denton, and 25 from a Post Office in Plano off Avenue K.

The team also mailed 25 from a mailbox outside the Brookhollow post office on Norwood Road in Dallas. 

Latest NBC 5 Investigates Mail Test Shows Improvement in DFW

The final results from the test showed 84% of letters sent from the DFW area arrived on time in the postal service's standard one to three business day target zone. The other 16% are late but most of those still arrived in four or five business days.

A couple of letters to New York took 10 business days but since Snailworks was tracking them, Lewis could see where those letters were delayed. The tracking showed it didn’t happen in Dallas-Fort Worth but in New York. Where they got hung up in processing at a local post office there.

“We could see what steps it went through as it got delivered,” said Lewis.

In many cases with the letters that took longer than three days, Lewis says the trouble happened at the final point. Getting that letter from the destination post office to the recipient's mailbox.

“Our assumption is always that the morning the letter carrier gets the mail, they'll deliver it to the mailbox. that didn't happen in a lot of cases here,” said Lewis. 

In places like Chicago, Snailworks uses the same system to help voters track mail ballots, allowing voters to see where their ballot is and giving elections officials real-time information so they can locate any missing or delayed ballots in the mail system.

“It just it just adds tremendously to the integrity of the process,” said Lewis.

In North Texas, some voters have told us they wish they could follow their ballot more closely.

“It's just extremely frustrating that there's literally nothing I can do and I have no idea where the ballot is,” said Anna Chase Lanier of Southlake.

This is Lanier’s first time to vote and she is voting by absentee because she’s away at college in Ohio.

She requested a ballot in September. By mid-October it hadn't arrived even though she says the Tarrant County Elections Department told her it was in the mail.

Tarrant County's website allows voters to log in and see the date their ballot was sent and the date it is received by the elections department, but you can't see exactly where it is when it’s in the mail.

Lanier's eventually arrived but she says tracking would have saved her some worry, and a call to the elections department

“A lot of my friends, especially here in Ohio, are able to track their ballots and they've been able to literally keep track like every step of the way,” said Lanier.

That's because more counties across the country are hiring companies like SnailWorks and ballottrax, a tracking company which offers to send voters alerts as their ballot moves.

“We're trying to send that information to them proactively before they even ask the question of where's my ballot?” said Steve Olsen, president of ballottrax.

In Dallas, County Judge Clay Jenkins says the elections department has been working on a more detailed tracking system but it wasn’t up and running until Tuesday -- just a week before the election.

Jenkins says the system was not available to the county until just recently, via the non-profit group, TxBallot.org which just recently started offering tracking in Texas.

“It's you know, it's a great question 'why it didn't come out earlier?' but what I'm told is they just released it,” said Jenkins.

Prior to now Dallas County voters could at least look up their name on the county website and see if the elections department has received their ballot, but the information was not easy to find in spreadsheets posted on the county site.

Some mail tracking companies told NBC 5 they didn't focus much on Texas in the past because, until this election, Texas didn't have many absentee ballots compared to other states. Fewer Texas voters qualify for mail ballots than in many other states.

Tarrant County officials said they actually put out a request for bids on a tracking system earlier this year but didn't get much interest from providers. So, the county worked to create its own online tool that at least lets people see when their ballot was sent and received.

Which brings us back to our unscientific mail test.

Even though 16% of NBC 5’s letters arrived late, the postal service says that doesn't mean ballots will arrive late if they are sent with ample time.

Ballots typically have special barcoding that gives them an even higher priority than most first-class mail. And the postal service says "..all local teams have been instructed and are expected to use extraordinary measures... to accelerate the delivery of ballots."

Postal union leaders confirm that's happening.

“We will move mountains as the unions to help make sure that happens,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union.

And as he tracks ballots across other states, SnailWorks’ Dave Lewis also has confidence.

“We've seen really spectacular delivery on ballots and very, very high percentage of delivery,” said Lewis.

Nationally, 79% of the more than 800 letters the NBC Owned Stations sent arrived on time in one to three days. That's a drop from the 88% NBC 5 reported in August and September tests. But, 98% still arrived within five days.

The postal service's own stats currently show an 85% on-time percentage in October.

There was an improvement at the Brookhollow post office location in Dallas. Last month, none of the letters that NBC 5 Investigates mailed from there arrived on time, after postmarking delays which the postal service declined to explain. This time, 76% of letters sent from that location arrived on-time.

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