Mail delays threaten Georgia absentee ballots delivered too late

An individual walks toward the entrance of a post office in Atlanta on Friday. The U.S. Postal Service notified 46 states that it cannot guarantee all ballots mailed for the November election will arrive in time to be counted, (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
An individual walks toward the entrance of a post office in Atlanta on Friday. The U.S. Postal Service notified 46 states that it cannot guarantee all ballots mailed for the November election will arrive in time to be counted, (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Mail delivery problems at the U.S. Postal Service could prevent absentee ballots from being counted in November’s presidential election if they don’t arrive in time.

The delays, in Georgia and nationwide, come at a time when record numbers of voters are submitting their ballots through the mail, avoiding in-person contact at polling places. Nearly half of voters in the state’s June 9 primary cast absentee ballots.

But for votes to be counted, Georgia law requires ballots to be received by county election officials before polls close on Election Day. Ballots received afterward will be rejected, even if they were postmarked well in advance.

The Postal Service acknowledged the problem, notifying 46 states that it couldn’t guarantee all ballots mailed for the November election will arrive in time to be counted, The Washington Post reported Friday. The secretary of state’s office said Friday that it hasn’t received a letter from the Postal Service.

A U.S. Postal Service worker takes a cart inside the post office at 822 Ralph McGill Boulevard NE in Atlanta on Friday. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
A U.S. Postal Service worker takes a cart inside the post office at 822 Ralph McGill Boulevard NE in Atlanta on Friday. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Some absentee ballots sent in Paulding County last month didn’t arrive in voters’ mailboxes for 28 days, said Deidre Holden, the county’s elections supervisor. Local mail is usually delivered within a few days.

When she learned about the holdup, she canceled and reissued new ballots, most of which arrived soon afterward. She also wrote a letter to President Donald Trump and complained to the U.S. Postal Service’s office in Atlanta.

“In November, we’re going to see a massive amount of paper ballots,” Holden said. “Once we turn those over to the Postal Service, they have to be taken seriously.”

So far, Georgia election officials have rejected 1,575 absentee ballots because they were received after this week’s election day, less than 1% of all absentees returned, according to election files updated Thursday. In the June 9 primary, 8,495 absentee ballots were received after the deadline.

Those numbers could grow in November’s general election, which is expected to draw 5 million Georgia voters, the most in state history. Roughly 1.5 million of them might use absentee ballots, election officials said.

Mail that previously took two or three days to deliver now often doesn’t reach local addresses for five or six days, said Kennith Beasley, the southern regional coordinator for the American Postal Workers Union.

The U.S. Postal Service last month stopped paying overtime, and post offices are short-staffed during the coronavirus pandemic, Beasley said. In addition, mail-sorting machines are being decommissioned.

Mail is often left sitting on docks and in cargo areas to be picked up the next day, he said.

“We hear horror stories,” said Beasley, who lives in Conyers. “If they spend the extra effort to get mail or absentee ballots out, we can do it. But the effort is not there. It’s bogged down by the bureaucracy of management.”

Trump has frequently criticized the Postal Service, and he said Thursday that he planned to oppose further funding to hinder what he called “universal mail-in voting.”

There’s nothing universal about voting in the U.S. because each state handles voting in its own way. Eight states, however, are mailing ballots to all voters before this year’s election.

The U.S. Postal Service recommended that voters request absentee ballots at least 15 days before the election and return completed ballots to county election officials at least one week ahead of the election.

The Postal Service said in a statement Friday that it is committed to delivering election mail in a timely manner.

“The Postal Service’s financial condition is not going to impact our ability to process and deliver election and political mail,” USPS spokesman Rick Badie said in a statement. “The Postal Service has ample capacity to adjust our nationwide processing and delivery network to meet projected election and political mail volume, including any additional volume that may result as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Georgia voters can request absentee ballots now for the general election, and election officials plan to begin mailing them by Sept. 20. Absentee ballots can be returned by mail, at county election offices or in drop boxes set up by many counties. Voters can also cast ballots in person on Election Day or during three weeks of early voting.

A website where voters can request absentee ballots is planned to go online by the end of this month.

“I would advise voters to vote early and also request their absentee ballots early and utilize drop boxes if there is a concern” about mail delivery times, Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said.

In Pennsylvania, a warning about slow mail delivery prompted election officials to ask the state’s Supreme Court on Thursday to allow mailed-in ballots to be counted if they’re received up to three days after Election Day.

Officials in Georgia are fighting a lawsuit that would seek to extend the state’s Election Day absentee ballot deadline. A federal judge has scheduled a hearing on that case for Wednesday.

An attorney for the secretary of state’s office said Friday that the absentee ballot receipt deadline can’t be changed because of Georgia’s requirements for timely counting and certifying election results.

Extending the time to return absentee ballots would endanger the election officials’ ability to finish counting ballots in the time provided under state law, Ryan Germany, the general counsel for the secretary of state’s office, said during a state House committee hearing. The state’s election certification deadline is 17 days after Election Day, which is Nov. 20.

State Rep. Bee Nguyen, a Democrat from Atlanta, suggested at that hearing that those deadlines should be changed to accommodate voters in a high-turnout election year, when more people than ever before are relying on the Postal Service to deliver their absentee ballots.

“There were thousands of votes that weren’t counted because they were received after election day” in the primary, Nguyen said. “The fear is we’ll continue to see issues with the Postal Service, along with increased turnout and increased voting by mail.”

How to vote absentee in Georgia

All Georgia voters are eligible to cast an absentee ballot without having to provide an excuse.

To request an absentee ballot, voters can download and return a form from the secretary of state’s website or the My Voter page at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov.

In addition, voters will be able to order absentee ballots through a state website that’s scheduled to go online by the end of this month.

Absentee ballots will be mailed to voters by Sept. 20. They can be returned by mail or in person to county election offices, or they can be inserted into drop boxes set up in many counties.

Absentee ballots will be counted if they’re received by election officials before polls close on Election Day on Nov. 3.

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