Ordinarily, the discovery of three trays of mail in a ditch in the third-largest urban area in Wisconsin wouldn’t get much attention outside the Badger State.
Things change, however, when mail-in ballots are among the items discarded.
According to WLUK-TV in Green Bay, the U.S. Postal Service is investigating after three trays of mail were reported by the Outagamie County Sheriff’s Office to have been discovered in a ditch near Appleton International Airport on Tuesday. Greenville is in the Fox Cities area, anchored by its largest city, Appleton.
It’s worth noting there’s not a whole lot known about the mail that was found in the ditch as of Thursday. The number of ballots, unknown. Number of pieces of mail, unknown. Percentage of that mail that was absentee ballots, unknown.
Whether or not this was a deliberate move is also unclear. Losing and/or jettisoning mail is a pretty serious thing, however, something that could land you behind bars — particularly if this is a matter motivated by politics.
“The United States Postal Inspection Service immediately began investigating and we reserve further comment on this matter until that is complete,” USPS spokesman Bob Sheehan told WLUK in a statement.
In the Fox Valley itself — which not only contains the Fox Cities but also the manufacturing hub of Oshkosh — there were a whole lot of mail-in ballots that never arrived or arrived too late to count for voters in the April 7 primary election. WLUK reported in May that 1,600 ballots hadn’t arrived. Two months later, that number was 749.
Here’s how WLUK described the situation in a July 14 report:
“A Postal Service representative told FOX 11 they were ‘waiting for some information,’ and would call back to do an interview when they received it.
“That call never came Monday.
“In May, the Elections Commission said the Postal Service indicated 1,600 ballots meant for Appleton and Oshkosh voters never made it by election day. The Postal Service’s report does not explain this discrepancy in numbers, and the Elections Commission did not return FOX 11’s request for an interview.”
The nearest we got to anything resembling an explanation, according to the WLUK report, was that city officials in Appleton “gave a third-party mailer absentee ballots the day before the election. That third-party mailer delivered three tubs of absentee ballots to the postal service at 6 p.m. on election day. The report says as a result, those ballots were not mailed out until after the election.”
Who was responsible? Big shrug. But don’t worry, they’re ready for Election Day.
By the way, if this were just a small concatenation of mistakes in the geographical middle of Wisconsin, there wouldn’t be any reason for concern. Maybe the third-party mailer screwed up. Maybe it was the USPS. Maybe it was city officials in Appleton.
The problem is that this is a pattern that manifested itself in different ways throughout the United States during primary season that we’ve been assured won’t manifest itself during the general election — despite the massive increase in mail-in voting due to state officials encouraging it.
In Clark County, Nevada — home of Las Vegas — a staggering 223,469 mail-in ballots were undeliverable during this year’s primary due to incorrect addresses. In the 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018 general elections, the whole state of Nevada saw 5,863 mail-in ballots returned undeliverable. Combined.
Meanwhile, in Sussex County, New Jersey, 1,666 ballots from the July primary were discovered this month, two months after the election was over. They wouldn’t have changed any races and were counted, and New Jersey isn’t a swing state in this autumn’s election, but Sussex is also one of the most sparsely populated of New Jersey’s 21 counties. If this kind of confusion were to happen in a major city, think of the kind of chaos that would erupt.
Actually, you needn’t think. In New York City, an hour southeast of Sussex County, two congressional primaries weren’t called until a month and a half after the primary elections in June. Granted, given that this is New York City, you were unlikely to see any real challenge to the seats, but more than 20 percent of ballots in Gotham — about 84,000 in total — were rejected in a city with only a few competitive races. Anything on that level in a swing state in November would be, in the electoral life of this nation, a traumatic event.
We’ve avoided bullets thus far. The likelihood we’ll remain that lucky in November seems small.
That’s because too many Americans labor under the misapprehension that mail-in voting will go smoothly because some states have long held their elections by mail and they haven’t had major problems. However, those states are limited in number and have implemented their systems over a long period of time, not just adopted widespread mail-in balloting in a space of a few months because of COVID-19 concerns.
“New proponents of mail balloting don’t often understand how it actually works,” said J. Christian Adams, president of elections watchdog Public Interest Legal Foundation, in a news release issued after the Clark County, Nevada, fiasco.
“States like Oregon and Washington spent many years building their mail voting systems and are notably aggressive with voter list maintenance efforts. Pride in their own systems does not somehow transfer across state lines. Nevada, New York, and others are not and will not be ready for November.”
It’s not just the states. The USPS isn’t necessarily ready to handle the ballots that are about to come its way in November, as much as it’s been taking steps to avert a crisis and been ordered to give priority to election-related mail by a judge. Local boards of elections also aren’t built to handle the tsunami the coronavirus has created, and they’re the ones who will end up canvassing.
This is a system with micro problems, like three trays of mail that just happen to wind up in a ditch near the airport in Appleton, Wisconsin for no apparent reason. It’s also a system with macro problems, like a Postal Service not designed for mail-in elections like this. Everything in between is also riddled with flaws.
But don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll all work out somehow — and the stakes are low enough that if it doesn’t, everyone on the losing side will accept defeat gracefully.
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