As Election Day 2020 quickly approaches, students are sending in their mail-in ballots to ensure they are counted on time. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a record number of people are voting by mail in this election to avoid contact with others. Some states, like California, are mailing ballots to every eligible voter whether they request one or not.
This increased reliance on mail-in and absentee ballots has put additional strain on the mail delivery system, including Lewis & Clark Mail Services. In the weeks and days leading up to the election, ballots start to make up a larger share of incoming mail, and Mail Services has to make sure each one reaches its proper recipient.
“They’re starting to pour in, a lot of counties mail them all at once, and a lot of them are kind of dispersed … so we have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of ballots coming into the mailroom,” Mail Services Specialist George Dewey said.
As the ballots arrive in the mailroom, they are sorted into bins based on the mail stop code (MSC) number of the student or staff mailbox, and are filed within 24 hours. If the ballot does not have an MSC number printed on it, either because the student forgot to include it on their mailing address or the elections office omitted it, the ballot goes into a separate pile so that someone from Mail Services staff can find the proper MSC by looking up the student’s name.
While this process requires a significant amount of work, it is not where Mail Services places the lion’s share of its efforts during election season. The biggest problem the mailroom faces is ballots that arrive for students who have already graduated.
“First, I double-check that they’re not current students and that the MSC number isn’t just mixed up or something,” Dewey said. “If that isn’t the problem I then take those ballots, I look through the student emails that we have, because we have a list of graduated students and their emails. So I email them a template that’s like, ‘you received a ballot to the mailroom but your mailbox is closed, are you able to come and pick up your ballot?’ Or it will say ‘are you able to request a new ballot to your updated address?’ And sometimes they will respond and say, ‘yeah, I’ll come next week, thanks for letting me know.’ And then I always include before signing off a reminder to update your mailing address.”
Most of the time, however, the email will come back with a mailer-daemon message because the college has deactivated the email address. When this happens, the mailroom is forced to send the ballot back to the county elections office with a return-to-sender stamp asking the office to remove this address from the county’s voter registration records.
“If I email 50 people, I’ll get the mailer-daemon response for about 35 of the 50,” Dewey said. “And then I’ll get, like, seven positive responses … I would say at least 15 students have come by and picked up ballots. And that’s, you know, that’s 15 more than zero. So it doesn’t feel like it’s for nothing.”
It can be disheartening to watch so many ballots be sent back due to the possibility that those people will become non-voters simply because they forgot to change their mailing address after they graduated.
“It’s honestly kind of maddening because like there’s no real place to put the blame besides on the voting system itself,” mailroom student worker Ely Klem ’21 said. “You can’t blame a bunch of college students for not having their registration up to date when they’re constantly moving around and the system is built in a way that makes it purposefully difficult to register when you have addresses that are moving around a lot.”
Klem proposed the idea of asking graduating students for a forwarding address to try to combat this problem.
“As part of your graduation checklist, you would be asked to provide a secondary email,” Klem said. “So for graduation stuff, maybe they send it to both emails so that way, when your email is deactivated, it doesn’t get lost, and then also they have a way to contact you after you’ve graduated.”
The mailroom is also working hard on the outgoing side to make sure that all received student and staff ballots are returned safely back to the county election office, and most importantly, counted.
“(My job) is looking through the stacks of outgoing ballots, to check for a few things,” Dewey said. “I will double-check that they’ve followed the instructions on the packet, which is more of a courtesy just to check that they actually have signed the ballot, or if there’s anything glaringly obvious that’s been missed that we know will mean that the ballot isn’t counted. Another thing we check for is the postage note in the corner. Every day, there are at least a few ballots in there that don’t have stamps that need stamps.”
Mailroom staff will also make sure that all ballots that arrive at the mailroom on or before Election Day will be postmarked by Nov. 3.
“Postmarked by Election Day means that you can come to the mailroom on Election Day, put it in and you’re good to go,” Dewey said. “Here’s the thing, though. Our mail goes out in the middle of the day. So I know that people are going to come by on Election Day at 3 p.m., and that wouldn’t go out until Nov. 4 … but I’m certain that one of us will end up personally driving to the post office after work to deliver a sack of late ballots. We hope that students don’t rely on that extra courtesy, but we also know that this isn’t the time to be teaching students a tough lesson.”