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In Florida, if you’re voting by mail for the primary, don’t wait too long

This year is definitely not the year to procrastinate when voting by mail in Florida.
Boxes for illegal and legal vote-by-mail ballots are shown as the the Miami-Dade County canvassing board meets to verify signatures on vote-by-mail ballots for the August 18 primary election at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department, Thursday.
Boxes for illegal and legal vote-by-mail ballots are shown as the the Miami-Dade County canvassing board meets to verify signatures on vote-by-mail ballots for the August 18 primary election at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department, Thursday. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published Aug. 4, 2020
Updated Aug. 5, 2020

It’s time to start thinking about putting your completed mail ballot into your mailbox if you haven’t already.

Florida’s primary election is less than two weeks away.

Mail-in ballots must be received — not postmarked — by 7 p.m. on Aug. 18, the time polls close, in order to be counted.

With elections officials across Florida expecting more mail voting than in previous primaries, turning ballots in earlier could help spread out the crush of mail ballot returns to elections offices, give voters more time to address any potential issues and help offset any delays in mail delivery.

Voters can return their ballots through the mail or at designated drop boxes in their counties. Voters who have received mail ballots but have not returned them can still make the decision to vote in person at an early voting site or their polling location.

The U.S. Postal Service has recommended that, even though most first-class mail gets delivered in two to five days, voters return their mail ballots at least one week before the due date.

“Voting by mail, you have to do things well ahead of the election,” said Charles Stewart III, director of MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab. “The Postal Service is not a magical delivery service. Nothing is going to turn on a dime.”

Related: So you want to vote by mail in Florida? Here’s what you need to know.

Indeed, voters who opt to put their ballot in the mail must remember they’re relying not only on their county elections office, but also on the Postal Service, to process.

In Florida, which has long relied on mail voting as a main method to cast ballots, many local elections offices have forged relationships with Postal Service officials to get ballots flagged and prioritized for delivery by 7 p.m. on the day of the election. Florida elections and post office employees are also often more familiar with procedures around mail voting than those in states that are quickly expanding vote-by-mail programs amid the pandemic.

Still, Stewart noted that, nationally, the Postal Service has seen years of budget cuts slow service.

The Postal Service’s budget woes are getting even more attention this election season because of the increased importance of mail ballots nationwide amid the pandemic. In addition, President Donald Trump has criticized mail ballots and the Postal Service in recent months, raising concerns that one of the nation’s oldest institutions is being politicized.

The Postal Service has seen the volume of its first-class mail fall 30 percent between 2010 and 2019 as people have increasingly turned to different methods to send messages and other items. Its debt has habitually outpaced its revenue, thanks largely to rising compensation and benefits costs.

The financial issues have had an impact. A March report from the Postal Regulatory Commission found that the service had not met its service performance targets for first-class mail for five straight years.

Newly appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump appointee and prominent Trump donor, in recent weeks has laid out changes to operations to try to cut some costs, including curtailing overtime —moves that some worry could further slow mail delivery.

Last month, four U.S. Senate Democrats sent a letter to Postmaster General DeJoy, questioning some of the changes he has implemented “that may negatively affect mail delivery.” That letter said DeJoy’s failure to provide Congress with clarification about recent changes “undermines public trust and only increases concerns that service compromises will grow in advance of the election and peak mail volumes in November.”

Former President Barack Obama, during a recent service memorializing late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, said that “there are those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting … even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that’s going to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don’t get sick.”

Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who studies elections, noted that, in Florida, Democrats have a nearly 600,000-voter advantage to Republicans in the number of requested mail ballots so far.

“Clearly, Democrats are lining up to vote by mail and Republicans are not,” McDonald said. “It does make you wonder if the post office is being manipulated for a political goal.”

Several Florida elections officials say they have had generally good experiences with the Postal Service.

“Locally here, our postal system is great. They could not do more for us,” said Susan Gill, supervisor of elections in Citrus County.

Still, there have been scattered stories about misplaced ballots and other issues over the years.

Two years ago, Pinellas County sent “quite a few ballots” to voters in other states because one of the Postal Service’s distribution centers was having problems, said Dustin Chase, spokesman for the county’s supervisor of elections office.

Recognizing that sending mail takes time, Florida in 2019 pushed back the deadline to request a mail ballot from six days before the election to 10 days.

Other states, including Georgia and Michigan, let voters request mail ballots less than a week before the election. The Postal Service has warned that could put ballots “at high risk of not being delivered to voters before an election.”

The country has not seen any large-scale failures of the Postal Service despite a surge in mail-in voting in primary elections nationwide this year, said Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of the voting rights and election program with the Brennan Center.

Some problems have been noted, although not all have been the fault of the post office.

For instance, during Wisconsin’s April primary — which saw a 440 percent increase in ballots sent by mail compared to its 2016 primary — hundreds of ballots went undelivered due to inconsistent postmarking, elections officials sending ballots at the last minute and one mail carrier’s inattention, according to a report by the Postal Service’s inspector general office.

Martha Shunn-King, legislative director for the American Postal Workers Union of Florida, said Postal Service employees in Florida have always taken extra care of ballots.

“I really don’t think it will be a problem at all in Florida,” Shunn-King said. “They’ll get their ballots delivered.”

Some experts say a larger issue with mail ballots may be the numbers of voters whose ballots get rejected for a number of reasons, including mismatched or missing signatures.

McDonald has said he estimates that 1 million people across the country could see their ballots rejected for a variety of reasons as many people vote by mail for the first time and make mistakes.

An analysis by the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project of Florida’s March presidential preference primary found that more than 18,000 Floridians who voted by mail did not have their votes counted because they did not fix signature issues, turned their ballot in too late or had other issues.

Floridians who want to vote from home but don’t want to put their completed ballot in the mail can drop their ballots off at designated ballot drop boxes in their county.

Pinellas County, which has long championed voting by mail, added eight more ballot drop-off locations this year, bringing the total sites to 23.

Related: Help wanted: Florida poll workers to brave the coronavirus