Snail mail? What we found when we mailed 100 letters in San Antonio

USPS says delivering election ballots swiftly is top priority

SAN ANTONIO – The mailman delivers. The question is, how fast?

“There’s been delays lately,” said Oralia Hernandez.

“Sometimes you get it. Sometimes you don’t,” said another resident.

In a Google Survey asking 500 San Antonians what, if any, issues they’ve had recently with USPS, 52% had no gripe. But nearly 23% said they’d experienced delivery delays.

“My mail’s late, my medicine,” said John Duke.

Hernandez echoed that complaint.

“My medicine, my medicine took its time,” she said.

The U.S. Postal Service has come under scrutiny as cost-cutting measures and operational changes slowed the mail in recent months. Now, with record numbers of voters expected to mail their ballots, the pressure is on.

So, we tested the Postal Service, stuffing, stamping and mailing 100 letter-sized envelopes to a centrally-located post office box that we rented.

We fanned out across Bexar County, dropping our letters in home mailboxes, cluster boxes, USPS blue boxes and post office mail slots. We even handed a few directly to friendly mail carriers making their rounds.

Every day, we checked for mail.

How long should it take? The USPS website says first class mail takes one to three business days.

Here’s what happened:

On day three, we got mail, but only 22 of our 100 envelopes — plus one that did not belong to us.

It took three more mail delivery days to receive the bulk of our letters — 74 of them came on day six.

Another four arrived even later on the seventh business day. That’s more than twice the time the Postal Service indicated it should take. We did not count Sunday or Columbus Day because there was no mail delivery on those days.

If you’re on the app, click here to see the graph below.

The Postal Service did pick up our letters promptly, postmarking them the same day - except for one that was mailed from a neighborhood box on the southeast side of town. It was mailed on Oct. 7, but postmarked on Oct. 13.

It appeared to make no difference in speed if a letter was dropped off at a Post Office. All mail in the region is taken to the Main Post Office facility on Perrin Beitel for processing.

In our experiment, we mailed standard letters, not ballots. But for record numbers of voters, the mailbox will be the ballot box.

The USPS sent a statement saying, in part, “The U.S. Postal Service’s number one priority between now and the November election is the secure, timely delivery of the nation’s Election Mail.”

The USPS said it is employing additional resources and visibility tools to expeditiously move election mail. Ballot envelopes are specially marked to increase their visibility.

“Extraordinary measures” have also been authorized for use between Oct. 26 and Nov. 24 to accelerate the delivery of ballots, USPS said. Those measures include extra deliveries, Sunday deliveries and running collected ballots to the Boards of Elections on Election Day.

Asked if our test results were of concern, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen said, “We’re telling people to mail them as soon as they get them.”

If you plan to vote by mail, the Postal Service generally recommends you mail your ballot at least a week ahead. The deadline to apply for a mail ballot is Friday.

Here is the full statement from the U.S. Postal Service:

The U.S. Postal Service’s number one priority between now and the November election is the secure, timely delivery of the nation’s Election Mail.

The Postal Service cannot substantiate that your test represents a reasonable approximation of Election Mail, including any ballots, as processed and delivered by the United States Postal Service in a real election cycle. The Postal Service has been working in close coordination with state and local election officials throughout the year leading up to the 2020 General Election. We have consulted on mail piece and ballot envelope design, encouraged the use of the Official Election Mail logo on all Election Mail (including ballot envelopes), Tag 191 for ballot mail, along with other visibility tools, and have been partnering with election officials to educate them on our recommendations and best practices for successfully using the mail. These visibility tools, and strong partnerships with election officials, help ensure that the Postal Service is able to expeditiously move Election Mail through our network and deliver it in a timely manner.

The Postal Service is fully committed and actively working to handle the anticipated increase in Election Mail volume over the coming weeks. We employ a robust and proven process to ensure proper handling of all Election Mail, including ballots. The anticipated volume of Election Mail will still be less than our holiday season volume which we successfully deliver every year. As the Postmaster General has already announced, we are deploying additional resources throughout October and continuing past Election Day, including, but not limited to, expanded processing procedures, extra transportation, extra delivery and collection trips, and overtime, to ensure that Election Mail reaches its intended destination in a timely manner.

Additionally, consistent with practices in past election cycles, the use of extraordinary measures beyond the normal course of operations is authorized and expected to be executed by local management between October 26 and November 24 to accelerate the delivery of ballots, when the Postal Service is able to identify the mailpiece as a ballot. These extraordinary measures include, but are not limited to, expedited handling, extra deliveries and special pickups, as used in past elections, to connect blank ballots entered by election officials to voters, or completed ballots returned by voters entered close to or on Election Day to their intended destination (e.g., Priority Mail Express, Sunday deliveries, special deliveries, running collected ballots to Boards of Elections on Election Day, etc.).

For domestic, nonmilitary voters who choose to use the mail to return a completed ballot, our general recommendation is, as a common-sense measure, to mail your completed ballot before Election Day, and at least one week prior to your state’s deadline. Some states may recommend allowing even more time for mailing completed ballots. You should always check to make sure you understand your state’s requirements and recommendations on mailing your completed ballot. You can look for information about your state’s requirements and recommendations here:

U.S. Postal Service

About the Authors

Marilyn Moritz is an award-winning journalist dedicated to digging up information that can make people’s lives a little bit better. As KSAT’S 12 On Your Side Consumer reporter, she focuses on exposing scams and dangerous products and helping people save money.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.

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