CBS 58 Investigates: Testing election mail delivery

CBS 58 Investigates: Testing election mail delivery

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- One million absentee ballots have been sent to Wisconsin voters and more will be sent as voters request them.

But with so many questions surrounding the United States Postal Service's mail handling this summer, CBS 58 Investigates devised a test to see how long ballots may take to get through the mail.

Investigative Reporter Mark Stevens mailed 100 mock ballots from collection boxes across the county to see how long they would take to arrive back at the TV station.

The experiment used paper of similar weight to Milwaukee County's ballots, the exact size envelopes, and were mailed all on the same day. Our mock ballots were split into multiple mailboxes in each city, and we missed the daily cutoff for mail to be collected in some of the boxes we found that day.

Our results:

  • 61 ballots arrived two days later.
  • 37 ballots arrived three days later.
  • 2 ballots arrived four days later.

"This paper is close to what Milwaukee County, all the municipalities use," said CBS 58 Investigative Reporter Mark Stevens.

"In a presidential election, and certainly in Wisconsin, given our battleground status, a small number of votes could matter," said University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Political Science Professor Kathleen Dolan.

Wisconsin law allows most voters to request an absentee ballot just five days before the election. It means the two percent of ballots in CBS 58 Investigates experiment taking four days to get through the mail is critical. The president beat Hillary Clinton by just 22,748 votes in 2016, a difference of less than one percent.

"It's a razor thin margin, that's the thing. With as many votes cast in Wisconsin, 20,000 votes is very close," said Dolan.

"That's very consistent with what the election commission is seeing," said Milwaukee Election Commission Director Claire Woodall-Vogg.

She said the mail has grown slower during her seven-year tenure with the commission.

"There are always outliers that take four to five (days)," said Woodall-Vogg.

She said it’s critical for voters to understand the CBS 58 Investigates experiment only measured the mail moving in one direction.

"The state's deadlines to request an absentee ballot really don't give a voter enough time to receive that ballot by mail, especially not to mail it back to us," said Woodall-Vogg.

That's why Milwaukee and other cities have installed ballot drop boxes. They give voters another secure option to return their ballot on time to be counted on Election Day.

"We're at least in a better spot where ballots are available six weeks in advance, voters have time to make a plan," said Woodall-Vogg.

Multiple Postal Service audits declared those deadlines one of the biggest obstacles to getting election mail handled in time. The Postmaster General Louis DeJoy promised election mail will be top priority at a recent Congressional hearing.

"We will scour every, every plant every day and each night leading up to Election Day," said DeJoy.

But the Postal Service's own data show less First Class mail met its delivery deadline this quarter than over the same time last year.

"There was a slowdown in the mail," said DeJoy.

He blamed the slowdown to transportation changes he made as well as problems related to delivering mail during a pandemic. The Postal Service and elections officials across Wisconsin still stress to request a ballot early.

"At least allow a week for their ballot to arrive," said Woodall-Vogg.

And mail it back as soon as possible.

The Milwaukee Election Commission said if a voter doesn't receive a ballot ten days after applying for one, to call the office. Voters can also track their ballot through the state's website

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