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A 2020 mail-in ballot arrived last week as mail delays persist in the Baltimore area and USPS remains under scrutiny

Towson resident Isaac Perry Cocke had long since given up on receiving his mail-in ballot for November’s presidential election when it arrived last week, a whopping four months after Election Day.

He was still able to vote — he drove to a county Board of Elections site and picked up his ballot all those months ago.

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“My wife was more concerned about it than I was, I’m afraid,” he joked.

“I figured that would work out the way that it did, which was another extra step I had to go through,” he said. “And if worse came to worst, I was prepared to go in and vote in person.”

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Cocke’s experience, while unique, is yet another example of mail-related woes that have persisted over the past few months.

Towson resident Isaac Perry Cocke received his November mail-in ballot just last week; he sits for a portrait at his home Tuesday, March 16.
Towson resident Isaac Perry Cocke received his November mail-in ballot just last week; he sits for a portrait at his home Tuesday, March 16. (Ulysses Muñoz)

The holiday season and its corresponding deluge of mail have passed, but the U.S. Postal Service continues to be hampered by delays. Staffing shortages due to the coronavirus pandemic and winter storms have challenged postal workers. The postmaster general remains in the crosshairs over postal service cuts that lawmakers argue are continuing to slow important deliveries.

For example, in a news release last week, the Maryland Transportation Authority said continued mail delays are “hampering both MDTA efforts for timely delivery of tolling notices and customer efforts to pay notices on time.”

As a result, the agency said it is encouraging drivers to pay tolls online, and that it isn’t sending information on unpaid bills to its collections unit or to the Motor Vehicle Administration. Its customer service call center, meanwhile, has been overwhelmed.

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“The pandemic continues to impact our operations but we have achieved significant improvements in service performance since the holiday period,” USPS spokeswoman Freda Sauter wrote in a statement.

Service issues preceded the pandemic — and the postmaster’s cutbacks — Sauter said, and the agency hasn’t met its delivery standards for eight years.

He's got mail: Isaac Perry Cocke's holds his November ballot.
He's got mail: Isaac Perry Cocke's holds his November ballot. (Ulysses Muñoz)

“Any plan to achieve service excellence at the Postal Service will, therefore, include a review of current delivery service standards,” she said.

Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s office has been accumulating complaints from constituents about mail delays, and last month Van Hollen and other Maryland legislators sent a concerned letter to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, urging him to reverse cost-cutting measures and return to 2012 service standards. The lawmakers also asked for DeJoy to outline how he’d use a $10 billion grant from Congress to improve service.

“The problems Marylanders are facing with USPS delivery delays are simply unacceptable. These issues stem from the top, and it’s why Postmaster General DeJoy has got to go,” Van Hollen said in a statement.

A postal worker loads carts filled with mail into a delivery truck at Baltimore's main U.S. Postal Service location Tuesday. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
A postal worker loads carts filled with mail into a delivery truck at Baltimore's main U.S. Postal Service location Tuesday. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron)

In a response to Van Hollen’s letter, a postal service official cited budgetary shortfalls as part of the reason for continued delays. Seasonal employees are being retained through March 26, the letter read, to help address high volumes of mail dating back to the holiday season.

“The volume of First-Class Mail, our flagship product, has declined by 45 percent since 2007, and overall mail volume has declined by 42 percent during that same period,” the letter reads. “Reinstating outdated service standards as letter mail volume continues a rapid decline would have a significant impact on postal operations.”

Since Van Hollen’s letter, President Joe Biden has nominated three people to fill vacant spots on the USPS board, potentially shifting its balance of power. If his picks are confirmed, there would be equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans on the board, plus the independent he selected. The moves are likely to put more scrutiny on DeJoy, who has been widely criticized for cutting back on overtime for postal workers and diminishing mail processing capacity nationwide.

“I’m glad that President Biden has nominated three highly qualified leaders to the USPS Board of Governors, and once confirmed by the Senate, I hope this new leadership will restore a commitment to service — instead of cutting corners — to the Postal Service” Van Hollen said. “I will not let up on this matter until these problems are resolved.”

In a statement, Sherry McKnight, president of the American Postal Workers Union local #181, urged Marylanders to call their senators to urge a quick confirmation of the new board members.

“We work diligently to help ensure timely processing of the mail despite Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s actions which have deteriorated service; and the current public health crisis which has impacted hundreds of postal workers in the Baltimore area and tens of thousands nationwide,” McKnight wrote.

DeJoy and the current postal service board are finalizing a 10-year plan to revitalize the agency. During a hearing before members of Congress, DeJoy declined to offer specifics about the plan, and whether it could include raising costs or cutting services.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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