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Baltimore postal facility sat on 68,000 pieces of election mail for 5 days ahead of primary, audit shows

A demonstrator holds a sign in support of the U.S. Postal Service during an Aug. 22, 2020, protest outside Baltimore's main post office facility on Fayette Street. It's the site of the Baltimore Processing & Distribution center, where an audit found 68,000 pieces of political mail sat untouched for five days during the runup to the June 2 primary.
A demonstrator holds a sign in support of the U.S. Postal Service during an Aug. 22, 2020, protest outside Baltimore's main post office facility on Fayette Street. It's the site of the Baltimore Processing & Distribution center, where an audit found 68,000 pieces of political mail sat untouched for five days during the runup to the June 2 primary. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

An audit of U.S. Postal Service performance during this year’s primary election season has found 68,000 pieces of political mail sat untouched at a Baltimore mail processing facility for five days ahead of the June 2 primary.

The audit published Monday says the mail, sent May 12, “sat unprocessed” for five days before being discovered by management at the facility.

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Baltimore was in the midst of several contentious political races at the time, including those for mayor, comptroller and City Council president. Numerous candidates for those offices spent thousands of dollars on campaign mailers in an attempt to sway voters in close primaries.

Ballots destined for those voters also were in the mail stream during the window when the political mail sat at the facility, but the audit specifically stated the delayed pieces were not ballots. “This was First-Class campaign mail from a political candidate,” according to a footnote in the report.

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“That might be the reason why I didn’t get a lot of votes,” Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young quipped Wednesday when asked about the audit at a news conference.

Young placed fifth in the Democratic race despite his incumbency and sizable spending.

The evaluation was performed by the Postal Service’s inspector general in an effort to look for improvements that could be made ahead of the November election. Seven postal service areas across the country were examined including Baltimore; Brooklyn, New York; Charleston, West Virginia, and Portland, Oregon.

The Postal Service has faced intense criticism from Democrats across the country who fear disinvestment by the agency could create problems with what is expected to be a largely vote-by-mail election this fall due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Widespread delays already have been reported with Postal Service deliveries — including in the Baltimore area — as a result of cost-cutting measures and a change at the system’s helm. Earlier this year, new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy imposed significant overtime restrictions for employees of the service, which has long lost money.

Last month, postal workers revealed that mail sorting machines were being removed and decommissioned at postal facilities across the country, including four delivery bar code sorters at the Baltimore mail processing facility, and two more in Linthicum. The machines being removed are typically used for election mail, including ballots.

In late July, the Postal Service warned 46 states, including Maryland, that the states’ deadlines for voters to make absentee ballot requests might not provide “sufficient time” for the ballots to be mailed to voters and then arrive at election offices with the required Election Day postmark.

The Maryland elections board voted last month to move that deadline to Oct. 20, although that is still is one day short of the 15 days before Election Day that the postal service says is the minimum time span.

Numerous problems were reported with Maryland’s June primary, which was the state’s first attempt at a largely vote-by-mail election, but none were blamed on the Postal Service. Ballots were delivered fewer than two weeks before the primary to voters in Baltimore City and Montgomery County because they were not mailed by May 8, as election officials had said they would be.

The state blamed the error on its Minnesota-based ballot printing vendor, SeaChange. SeaChange said the problem was the fault of Maryland election officials for delivering voter lists a week late.

State election officials were effusive in their praise for the Postal Service at the time, which arranged overnight shipments to ferry the ballots from Minnesota to Maryland.

“The Postal Service has been amazing,” the state’s deputy administrator of elections, Nikki Charlson, said in May. “They have been driving trucks through the night.”

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Former Maryland deputy attorney general Thiru Vignarajah’s mayoral campaign spent heavily on sending out multi-page, glossy mailers outlining detailed policy proposals ahead of the primary.

”We were really proud of our mail program and it’s certainly disappointing to hear that it may not have gotten through,” said Vignarajah, a Democrat who finished fourth.

But what’s most important, he said, is to use what happened as a lesson moving forward.

“It is really disturbing that the postal system has become a political football,” Vignarajah said.

The national audit found several of the reviewed postal facilities did not properly complete daily certifications to confirm that all election mail had been processed in the two weeks leading up to their primaries. Specifically, facilities in Baltimore and Oklahoma City certified that they were clear of election and political mail, when in fact 68,000 pieces of political mail sat unprocessed at the Baltimore facility and about 200 ballots were untouched in Oklahoma City.

Sherry McKnight, president of the American Postal Workers Union, Baltimore Local 181, said it would not be easy to misplace 68,000 pieces of mail in the processing and distribution center on East Fayette Street, but there are places where such a quantity might be overlooked. The union was not informed of the incident, she said.

McKnight said the affected customer or customers should have been notified about the delay.

Democratic mayoral candidate T.J. Smith said his campaign had mailers in the mail stream as of May 12, but the late ballots remained much more concerning. Candidates struggled at the time to figure out when to mail their final literature because they were unsure when city voters would get their ballots, he said.

“I think it warrants being looked into to ensure that it wasn’t maliciously done,” Smith said.

Freda Sauter, regional spokeswoman for the Postal Service, said in an email that the agency is committed to delivering election mail in a timely manner this fall.

“We employ a robust and proven process to ensure proper handling of all election mail, including ballots,” she said.

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She did not have further details about what happened, such was whether the affected candidate was notified or whether any further investigation was taking place.

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Republican President Donald Trump, a vocal critic of voting by mail, said last month that the postal service was ill-equipped to handle the millions of ballots that are expected to be sent this fall because of its inability to access emergency funding, which he acknowledged he is blocking.

The audit findings about Baltimore were not entirely negative. Auditors noted that Baltimore’s post office requests sample copies of ballots before they are mailed to voters to test them in mail processing machines.

Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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