About 33.9% of Albemarle County ballots have not yet been scanned by the United States Postal Service as of Monday, according to data from the Virginia Department of Elections, but it unclear what effect this could have on the Nov. 2 election.
Yet the Democratic Party of Virginia is concerned and has filed a lawsuit against he USPS for failure to timely process and deliver election-related mail, which it says is “threatening to disenfranchise thousands of Virginia voters. Data from the state was brought to light as part of the lawsuit.
But it’s unclear how accurate the data is, as local registrars are reporting different numbers of total ballots sent, and the company collecting the data already notes potential scanning issues with USPS. The U.S. Postal Service has denied having any sitting ballots.
Postal service nationwide has been slow over the last year, but the Charlottesville area’s delivery problems have grown worse over time, with many residents reporting in August that they’ve gone weeks without receiving any mail at all. The Postal Service has not given specifics about what is causing the delays, other than staffing problems due to the pandemic, despite repeated requests for answers.
Albemarle has 14 post offices across the county, with the main location being the Charlottesville Post Office. Recently, former city carriers reported that undelivered mail was hidden from U.S. Sen. Mark Warner when he visited the office in August. Those carriers said chronic understaffing and poor management are on-going issues.
Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, complained on Twitter on Oct. 1 that he had not yet received his requested mail-in ballot for the upcoming Nov. 2 election. On Oct. 16 he got his ballot, which was postmarked Sept. 23.
The lawsuit, filed on Friday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia cited data from Albemarle, as well as James City and Portsmouth counties, from Oct. 19 and said “there were thousands of ballots just sitting, unscanned in USPS facilities.”
In a statement, USPS said it has “a robust and tested process for the proper handling and timely delivery of election mail” and that its “election mail processes and procedures are fully operational in Virginia.”
“We are not aware of any processing delays of any ballots within our facilities nor any ballot delivery delays, and we have fully communicated this information to election officials,” said Philip Bogenberger, a USPS spokesperson based in Charlotte, in an email. “Throughout the election cycle we work closely with state and local election officials and have been addressing any concerns that they raise. Daily sweeps are being conducted in all our Virginia facilities.”
Both Albemarle and Charlottesville registrars are recommending those with mail-in ballots take them to their locality’s drop box or return them to their precinct on Election Day. They said voters who have not yet received their mail-in ballots should vote early in-person, otherwise votes on Election Day will be counted as provisional.
In a document filed Tuesday in response to the lawsuit, the USPS said the lawsuit “appears to be based on a misunderstanding.”
“The Postal Service has in place systems to conduct rigorous, daily checks of its postal facilities to look for just this type of misplaced ballot,” the document said. “It has conducted these checks as recently as today, and the Postal Service has not identified any such misplaced ballots.”
Benjamin Farmer III, the acting Atlantic area political and election mail coordinator for USPS, said in a declaration filed on Tuesday that post offices that serve Portsmouth and Albemarle all certified that their facilities were all-clear of ballots committed for delivery on Oct. 25.
“If, as plaintiff alleges, there were ballots ‘sitting unscanned’ in these facilities, those ballots would have been identified during the all-clear process,” he said.
The Virginia Department of Elections said the data comes from Ballot Scout, an application that tracks ballots sent through the mail using USPS Intelligent Mail barcodes.
As of Monday, 6.6% of Charlottesville ballots were still unscanned with USPS, according to the data provided by the Virginia Department of Elections.
According to data provided by the state, the number and percentage of unscanned Albemarle ballots has decreased overtime, from 56% on Oct.8 to 33.9% on Monday.
Albemarle Registrar Jake Washburne said he received a lot of inquiries about Ballot Scout last November.
“It was clearly not working all that great,” he said. “I haven’t gotten so many this year again, but I have gotten a few emails saying “I can’t see where my ballot is, can you tell me if you received it?”
One caller said they had no information on Ballot Scout, but when Washburne checked, it had already been scanned as received by the county.
“Yet, according to him, he was getting nothing out of Ballot Scout,” he said.
On its website, Ballot Scout notes that “certain postal facilities may not have the scanning equipment to continue scanning the ballot or the USPS may be sorting the ballot in a way that does not move the ballot through the relevant scanning machines.”
Washburne said the county sent out 7,691 mail-in ballots and have received back 4,484 as of Wednesday. Typically, many come in during the last week before the election, he said.
“Over the years the overall return rate has only been about 80% or 82%, so I hope we’re going to be in reasonably decent shape,” Washburne said
In a Tuesday meeting of Albemarle’s Electoral Board, it discussed telling voters with outstanding mail-in ballots to return them via the drop box at the Fifth Street County Office Building or at their polling place on election day.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 9,755 voters had voted early in-person in Albemarle.
“For a non-presidential election it seems like a pretty healthy number to me, and it seems like over the last week those numbers go up and up every day,” Washburne said. “The Friday before the election has always been the most people coming in, and then Saturday drops off a little bit. But still, we’re expecting the highest numbers could be this week.”
As of Tuesday morning, 2,787 voters had voted in-person in Charlottesville, Acting Registrar Taylor Yowell said.
Charlottesville has sent out 2,563 mail-in ballots, she said, and has received back 1,000 as of Tuesday.
Yowell said that voters who requested a mail-in ballot but still have not received it should vote early in-person this week.
“The last day to vote early is this coming Saturday, but we’re here the rest of the week and Saturday, because if they wait until election day and go to their precinct they will have to vote provisionally,” she said.
Provisional ballots are not counted until after Election Day to make sure voters don’t “double dip,” Washburne said.
In Charlottesville, early voting will be open at the City Hall Annex in Room 142 from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday and 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday. Charlottesville will also hold early voting from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.
Early voting in Albemarle will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursday and 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday at the 5th Street County Office Building in Room A. Albemarle will also hold early voting from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.
All localities in Virginia will accept mail-in ballots via USPS that are postmarked by Nov. 2 until noon on Nov. 5.