Drop boxes more secure against Postal Service corruption

Most Colorado voters don’t return ballots in the mail

A ballot drop off box outside the Denver Elections Division on W. 14th Ave. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Colorado is often held up as a model for election access and security. Its mail ballot system has proved popular and successful and is admired in election offices throughout the country.

As President Trump and his allies began attacking mail ballot systems this year — apparently because they calculated that the kind of enfranchisement such systems produce would disadvantage him — it appeared that Colorado was well-positioned to withstand the offensive. States that, due to COVID-19 concerns, had recently expanded access to mail ballots might be vulnerable to court challenges. But Colorado was legally secure, since its mail ballot program was demonstrably effective, and Trump’s claims that it was susceptible to fraud had no credibility.

But cynical rhetoric has since turned to sinister action.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a top Trump donor who was installed in June despite flagrant conflicts of interest, instituted changes to the Postal Service’s overtime and delivery policies that threatened to compromise mail ballot systems from the inside. The agency also reportedly was removing hundreds of mail-sorting machines at facilities around the country, including the General Mail Facility in Denver. Last week Coloradans learned that the Postal Service was sending out postcards purportedly to educate voters across the country about mail ballots even though the information as it related to Colorado was at best misleading. It was hard not to conclude that the errant cards amounted to a federal disinformation campaign. 

In light of such underhanded activities, Coloradans are left to wonder if the state’s mail ballot system, far from being a vaunted example, leaves it exceptionally vulnerable to tampering.

One reassuring aspect of Colorado’s mail ballot system is that while almost all ballots are distributed to voters through the mail, most voters don’t mail them back. A majority of voters return their completed ballots by hand, delivering them to a secure drop box, voter center or drive-up drop-off location.

At last count, 368 secure, 24-hour ballot drop boxes have been installed throughout the state. There are also many election centers, county offices and other facilities that will accept hand-delivered ballots during business hours. About 75% of voters return their completed ballots to a drop box. In metro Denver, a voter is never too far away from a drop box. In Boulder during the 2018 general election, 87% of voters returned ballots to a drop box, election center or drive-up drop-off location. 

In rural areas of Colorado, voters often must travel farther to find a drop box — and this suggests a way in which any Trump efforts to undermine Colorado’s mail ballot system by meddling with the Postal Service could backfire.

Rural areas in the state tend to favor the president’s party, but they’re the very regions whose voters are more likely to return their ballots by post. Counties such as Logan (1,566 Democrats to 5,955 Republicans), Sedgwick (242 Democrats to 867 Republicans) and Yuma (626 Democrats to 3,028 Republicans, including Sen. Cory Gardner) are huge geographically compared with liberal Denver, but they have only one or two drop boxes each. The Yuma County clerk and recorder reports that in the June primary election the county saw about 65% of ballots returned to a drop box — significantly fewer than in Joe Biden-preferring Boulder.

With the Election fast approaching and all the negativity of mailing ballots, I would like to ease some of the concern. …

Posted by Yuma County Clerk and Recorder on Friday, August 21, 2020

A point that is echoed throughout the state, in red and blue areas, by officials of various stripes: No matter what misdeeds are committed in Washington, D.C., local Postal Service personnel still have the trust of local election partners. “The Yuma County Clerk and Recorder’s Office has enjoyed a very positive working relationship with our Postal Service officials, the dedicated staff that process the mail, and the route carriers that deliver those ballots to our voters’ doorsteps,” wrote the office of Republican County Clerk Beverly Wenger on Facebook on Tuesday.

Wenger’s Democratic counterpart in Boulder, Molly Fitzpatrick, issued a statement in August that said, “The U.S. Postal Service has always been a valued partner in our election process, and those we have worked with have always been dedicated public servants committed to our state and our country.”

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One of those dedicated public servants is Tony Reed, who has been a letter carrier for 22 years and delivers mail in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in downtown Denver. In recent months he has seen changes at the Postal Service that trouble him — the removal of a sorting machine from the General Mail Facility one day, an instruction not to deliver some mail another day. Such unusual activity seemed to violate the carriers’ dedication to reliably deliver mail, expressed in their creed “every piece, every day,” Reed said in an interview with Newsline.

  I want to print a T-shirt that says, 'We got this.'   -Tony Reed, Denver letter carrier

“Personally, I think it has something to do with the presidential election,” he said.

But when asked what he’d say to Colorado voters who might doubt the Postal Service’s ability to deliver ballots, Reed replied immediately, “I want to print a T-shirt that says, ‘We got this.'” His colleagues, including carriers, clerks, mail handlers and supervisors, are devoted to their mission and go to extraordinary lengths to make sure mail, especially election mail, is delivered in a timely manner, he said, adding, “The things they do are incredible.”

Trump and his allies have proved supremely destructive, and from the Bureau of Land Management to the Environmental Protection Agency to the Justice Department to the U.S. Senate, there is hardly a federal function or agency that’s not corrupted by their influence. The Postal Service has many dedicated and honest Americans performing its services, and there is little doubt that public servants like Reed will carry out their duties with distinction during the election. But Colorado voters can be excused for fearing the malign reach of the White House has the potential to undercut even dedicated letter carriers.

Colorado’s mail ballot drop boxes have long been viewed as a great convenience. This year they might serve as a defense of democracy.