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Oct 3, 2020

Whose vote will count?

Co-produced with PRX Logo

From problems with vote-by-mail systems to voter suppression, we examine the potential for chaos in the 2020 elections in crucial swing states. 

Wisconsin is one of the key states that will decide who will be our next president. It’s also a state where Republican lawmakers have been making it harder to vote for about a decade. New restrictions, including a strict voter ID law, have been especially hard on Black voters. Then the pandemic hit Milwaukee. As lawmakers forced Wisconsin’s spring election to happen on time and in person, the state’s largest Black population was getting hammered by the coronavirus. Reporter Ike Sriskandarajah takes us to his home state to look at the effect of the virus and voting reforms and what that might mean for the presidential election, for a story reported in partnership with APM Reports. 

No one who was following politics in 2000 can forget the nail-biting recount election in Florida. But that’s not the only recount gone wrong in the Sunshine State. WLRN reporters Caitie Switalski and Danny Rivero share how the state’s elections just two years ago were a complete nightmare. Election officials waited until Election Day to start counting tens of thousands of vote-by-mail ballots that had been sitting in boxes. It took weeks to count all the votes in races with razor-thin margins, and the bitter debate sparked at least 10 lawsuits. This electoral chaos could be a glimpse into what happens across the country. 

Finally, we talk with postal workers about recent changes that have slowed mail delivery and shaken the U.S. Postal Service under the Trump administration. Host Al Letson talks with Lori Cash, president of the American Postal Workers Union’s Western New York Area Local 183, about how postal workers will be able to handle the volume of mail-in ballots in November. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has overseen the removal of high-speed mail-sorting machines across the country and forced trucks to maintain strict schedules, which often means leaving mail behind.

Dig Deeper

Read: More Mailed Votes, More Rejected Votes

Read: Florida’s Contested 2018 Races Could Be a Warning of What to Expect in November

Read: Polls Closing, COVID-19 Fears, Kept Many Milwaukee Voters Away

Read: Their Wisconsin Ballots Never Arrived, So They Risked a Pandemic. Or Stayed Home

Read: Postal Delays, Errors in Wisconsin and Other Swing States Loom Over Election

Credits

WLRN Public Media logo

Reported by: Ike Sriskandarajah, Danny Rivero, Caitie Switalski, Byard Duncan and Najib Aminy

Produced by: Ike Sriskandarajah, Danny Rivero, Caitie Switalski and Najib Aminy

Edited by: Laura Starecheski, Sumi Aggarwal and Brett Myers

Production manager: Najib Aminy

Production assistance: Brett Simpson and Amy Mostafa

Sound design and music by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda

Mixing: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda

Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan

Host: Al Letson

Special thanks: Tom Sheck, Geoff Hing and Chris Worthington at APM Reports; Dee Hall and Jim Malewitz at Wisconsin Watch; Terence Shepherd, Alicia Zuckerman and Tom Hudson at WLRN in Florida; Alex Harris at the Miami Herald; Lynn Heidelbaugh at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum for help with our story about the U.S. Postal Service; and Reveal’s David Rodriguez for help with outreach on the show.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Speaker 1: If you're enjoying this show, we'd like to introduce you to another podcast we think you'll like. Coming to you from PRX and Wyoming Public Media. A new season of the Modern West is out now. The stories will take you to a windswept prairie where an Old West ghost town once stood into a new ghost town in the making more schools and businesses are closing fast. The Modern West is exploring rural decline and resilience and asking why does it matter if America's small towns disappear? Search for the Modern West wherever you get your podcasts.
Speaker 2: Support comes from MSNBC, the race to election day is on. This Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris debate for the first and only time before November 3rd. Join Rachel Maddow, Nicole Wallace, Joy Reid, Brian Williams and MSNBC's team of political experts for the analysis you need and how this debate will inform the final weeks of the election. And Steve Kornacki will break down the latest data for you at the big board. The vice presidential debate, watch Wednesday at 8:00 PM Eastern on MSNBC.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. There's a lot of anxiety this year over the presidential election, especially now that President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have tested positive for COVID-19. Fear of the coronavirus is affecting the way people will vote this year. I live in California and I know I can safely vote from home by mailing in my ballot. All voters here have had that option since the late 1970s. But that's not the norm everywhere. This year, about twice as many people could vote by mail compared to the last presidential election. That's around 80 million people, according to The New York Times. State and local election officials are scrambling to figure out how to get all those ballots to voters and how to count them once they've been mailed in. In the middle of all of this, President Trump has repeatedly made the false claim that mail-in voting would lead to massive fraud. There is no evidence of that. But the President recently upped the stakes by saying he might not accept the election results.
President Donal...: Get rid of the ballots and you'll have a very peaceful ... there won't be a transfer, frankly, there'll be a continuation.
Al Letson: You've probably heard that piece of tape over and over again by now because, well, it's astounding. Every vote will count in an election that could come down to a few thousand ballots rejected, a few thousand voters missing a deadline, a few thousand people who just don't vote because they've lost faith in the system. Today, we're teaming up with APM Reports and public media newsrooms to investigate efforts around the country to suppress the vote. We begin in Wisconsin, a state that's crucial this year, not just because it could decide the election, but because it serves as an extreme example of how making it harder to vote can change the balance of power. Reveal's Ike Sriskandarajah takes us to his home state.
Ike Sriskandara...: I talked with Tristan Thomas, he's a 38-year-old logistics technician living in Appleton, Wisconsin. That's about two hours north of Milwaukee.
Tristan Thomas: Been a registered voter since 2000, in the state of Wisconsin, and I've seen quite the ups and downs with the process in the state.
Ike Sriskandara...: You grew up in Wisconsin?
Tristan Thomas: Grew up in Wisconsin, grew up in ... was actually born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Ike Sriskandara...: Tristan's dad was a Navy veteran and his mom worked a lot of jobs, including at America's Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee. From a young age Tristan's family drilled in him the history of this country, and the importance of his right to vote.
Tristan Thomas: Yeah, my dad and my mom were both big proponents of using that vote. My dad especially, seeing how his mom, she actually got to march with Dr. King.
Ike Sriskandara...: Tristan told me that his grandma was supposed to march with Dr. King another time in Selma, 1965 to march for voting rights. But she reconsidered because she was pregnant at the time. She lived to be over 100 and was a constant reminder in their house of what her generation went through so he could have the right to vote. And do you remember when you turned 18 going to vote for the first time?
Tristan Thomas: Oh, yeah, I think it was Lina's grocery store and they had people out there registering people to vote. And I'm like, well, yeah, I definitely need to get registered.
Ike Sriskandara...: When Tristan talks about voting, he kind of sounds like a peppy track coach for democracy.
Tristan Thomas: And I was excited to vote. I was like, yes, finally I can exercise this right. Let's do this.
Ike Sriskandara...: Tristan's grandma fled the segregated South, as so many Black families did during the Great Migration, only to find out same racist policies in the north.
Tristan Thomas: Milwaukee, Wisconsin is one of the most segregated cities in all of America.
Ike Sriskandara...: Milwaukee is home to some of the starkest racial disparities in the entire country. The highest Black infant mortality rate, the largest achievement gap between Black and white students. And the highest rate of incarceration for Black men. Just last year, after decades of disinvestment, white flight, redlining, Milwaukee became the first place in the country to declare racism as a public health crisis. Most Black people in Wisconsin live here and they overwhelmingly vote Democratic, in a state ruled by Republican lawmakers.
Tristan Thomas: They're making it more difficult for, they say for everyone to vote, when really is actually about choking out the Black vote. They're really trying to strangle the vote.
Ike Sriskandara...: Tristan grew up hearing stories of voter suppression in the South. But in Wisconsin, there was a new push that started just a decade ago.
Tristan Thomas: It was the beginning of things getting much, much worse.
Ike Sriskandara...: The beginning was November 2, 2010. That's when in one night the GOP won the assembly, the Senate and the governor's office, where Scott Walker took over. Dee Hall of the investigative newsroom Wisconsin Watch says the election was a game changer.
Dee Hall: Wisconsin was one of those so called trifecta states where all branches of government were now controlled by Republicans so that they could then redistrict with complete authority.
Ike Sriskandara...: Redistricting, every 10 years, the state redraws the map of political representation based on the new census data. In 2011, the Republicans got that data and drew what is widely considered the most gerrymandered electoral map in the country. Senate Democrats like this one had no way to stop them.
Speaker 8: Everybody in the state recognizes this for what this exactly is, this is a huge power grab.
Dee Hall: And it was very effective.
Ike Sriskandara...: The new maps meant that there were more safe Republican districts, all but guaranteeing their control of the state legislature.
Dee Hall: So this became really a multi-pronged effort to ensure that Republicans really could never lose.
Ike Sriskandara...: They then went on to write or change 33 laws that made it harder to vote, just in Governor Walker's first term.
Speaker 9: The legislature for the second time in three years recently passed a bill limiting early voting.
Dee Hall: The ability of people to vote early was severely restricted.
Speaker 9: There will be no voting after 7:00 at night and none on weekends.
Dee Hall: The length of time that a person needed to live in a place to be declared as a resident went from 10 days to 28 days.
Ike Sriskandara...: And then came one of the most significant changes.
Speaker 10: Wisconsin voters will now be required to show an ID at the polls before casting a ballot. Governor Walker signed the voter ID bill into law today.
Ike Sriskandara...: Publicly, Republicans argued that showing an ID to vote deters fraud. And you need an ID to get on a plane, to cash a check, to do a lot of things. So what's the big deal? But among themselves, Republican lawmakers were more candid. An aide to a longtime republican state senator, we used to represent my home district of Richland Center told TMJ 4 News what it was like behind the scenes of the voter ID debate.
Speaker 10: Well, the tenor, the tone of that meeting, it was clear that there was one thing on their minds, and that was to have a political advantage. And I think that crosses the line.
Ike Sriskandara...: I reached out to former Governor Walker, as well as the Republican speaker of the assembly and the senate majority leader. I wanted to ask about all the changes they've made to voting in the state. None of them would talk to me. But the push for voter ID laws is part of a long history of rules that disproportionately keep Black people from voting. That starts at the founding of this country, and goes right up until the 2016 election in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,
Tristan Thomas: My sister actually, her ID expired. But when you're trying to take care of a couple of kids on your own, and you're working a couple of jobs, you don't find the time to really do that. So it's like well, now I can't vote.
Ike Sriskandara...: Tristan still remembers, in his words, the blue streak she cussed about it.
Tristan Thomas: That story comes up so many times.
Ike Sriskandara...: One study looked at registered voters in Madison and Milwaukee in 2016. And in just those two areas alone, found that the new voter ID law kept as many as 23,000 people from casting a ballot. That also happens to be about the same number of votes Donald Trump carried Wisconsin by. Voter ID and other restrictions were still in place this past April, when Wisconsin had to figure out how to hold the election in a pandemic.
Dee Hall: Milwaukee was an epicenter, for a while it was a national epicenter of COVID-19 infection.
Speaker 11: The area now has the highest concentration of positive COVID-19 cases in the entire county.
Speaker 12: The severity of this disease in the African American community, it's a crisis within a crisis.
Speaker 13: And there is now what they call community spread.
Tristan Thomas: And then you hear about the numbers in areas that I grew up in, in zip codes that I grew up in, about how Black people are being disproportionately affected by this disease. It's a gut punch.
Ike Sriskandara...: You might not think at this moment, an election would be on his mind. But Tristan, who never misses a chance, wanted to vote and vote safely, away from crowded polls where he might get sick. So he, like a record number of people in the state, requested an absentee ballot.
Tristan Thomas: We asked for mail-in ballots weeks ahead of time and we didn't get them. My oldest sister got her mail-in ballot. My brother got his mail-in ballot, but my other two sisters did not. And my youngest sister, who was with child at the time, had to make that decision to go in to vote.
Ike Sriskandara...: Tristan did not get his ballot in time to vote. His sisters didn't either. So in the days leading up to the election, it came down to this. The Democratic governor wanted to delay the whole election until June because of the coronavirus. He also wanted to make it all vote-by-mail. And Republican lawmakers pushed for this election to happen on time and in person, even if it reduced turnout.
Dee Hall: There were just completely different attitudes toward the virus from great fear if you lived in Milwaukee and you knew people who were dying, to absolute almost indifference in rural parts of the state, where no one was sick and no one had died. And because of redistricting, our rural lawmakers have more power than maybe they would have.
Ike Sriskandara...: If this April election was a dark will they, won't they. The final episode is very hard to follow.
Speaker 14: We are continuing to follow breaking news we first brought you at 5:00, Governor Tony Evers had tried to suspend in-person voting today moving the election to June. But in the last hour, the state Supreme Court ruled that he could not do that.
Speaker 15: The Supreme Court ruling was the latest in a whiplash of a day where the election looked different hour by hour.
Speaker 16: That means that the election will go on as planned.
Speaker 17: In-person voting will take place across the state tomorrow. And aide to Governor Evers told TMJ 4 News, "people will die because of this."
Tristan Thomas: And I remember just being livid, I just, I could not work the rest of the day, my mind was not on work, because now I have to make a decision. And it took me back to a place where my grandmother was fighting for this right.
Ike Sriskandara...: So does he vote and risk it or not participate?
Tristan Thomas: How am I going to do this safely, like this isn't fair. I think this is the first time where I felt like it may not be possible to vote.
Ike Sriskandara...: A lot of people were really scared of getting sick, including poll workers. In Milwaukee, for instance, there are normally 180 polling places. For the April election, they could only get enough workers to staff five. So the people who did show up, waited for up to two and a half hours in long snaking lines, and others just sat it out. One study looked at how many Black voters in Milwaukee the April election disenfranchised.
Dee Hall: They found that when you combine the effect of the fear over the pandemic, and the crowded polling places, which kept some people home, that Black voter turnout was reduced by 15.9 percentage points, or just about 16 percentage points. So that's a very large drop.
Ike Sriskandara...: Researchers at the Brennan Center for Justice told me that's as many as 28,000 Black voters in the city of Milwaukee, but not Tristan. On Election Day, he and his wife masked up and went out to their polling place in Appleton.
Tristan Thomas: We socially distanced as much as we possibly could. We had the mask, the hand sanitizer, the polling place did a great job. But nobody should have to go out in a worldwide pandemic to do that.
Ike Sriskandara...: For Tristan, though, the stakes were just too high. On the ballot was a race for a seat on the state Supreme Court. It was between a conservative judge who Scott Walker appointed and a liberal challenger. Since this is a census year, whoever wins may be asked to weigh in on how the political map in the state is redrawn for the next 10 years. And it was all being decided in a pandemic election forced to happen on time and in person.
Dee Hall: We are a very polarized state. So it is hard to predict outcomes anytime, honestly. So I guess I would say that the results of every election are a surprise in Wisconsin, because it's always so close.
Ike Sriskandara...: It usually is close. But this time ...
Speaker 18: And now to the race that has captured the attention of the nation tonight.
Ike Sriskandara...: It wasn't.
Speaker 18: Judge Jill Karofsky won a 10 year term to the state's highest court.
Ike Sriskandara...: The liberal challenger won by 11 points, 160,000 votes. How do you explain the results? I don't expect there's that easy answer.
Dee Hall: Well, I think that's a really good question. How did the liberal win on April 7th? I have not seen a really good explanation for that, honestly.
Ike Sriskandara...: What we do know is the liberal candidate did really well with vote-by-mail. The Democrats adapted to the new system in just a few weeks, the GOP was less nimble.
Dee Hall: It's also possible that some of the older folks who would tend to vote Republican and conservative decided not to vote on April 7th, because of the fear of coronavirus. It's possible they were disenfranchised too.
Ike Sriskandara...: Tom Scheck, investigative reporter at our partner APM Reports, looked into this other kind of disenfranchisement, vote-by-mail ballots that were thrown out. He got a hold the public records of rejected ballots and started calling up individual voters.
Tom Scheck: I guess I'm telling you this for the first time. Did you know that your ballots were rejected in 2018 and in spring?
Jim Moses: No, no.
Tom Scheck: No one called you, no one said anything-
Jim Moses: No.
Tom Scheck: ... to tell you this.
Jim Moses: No, it's first I've heard of it.
Ike Sriskandara...: Jim Moses in Salem Lakes, a small town in the southern corner of the state is a reliable Republican voter, but his absentee ballots have been rejected twice.
Tom Scheck: What do you think about this?
Jim Moses: Pretty pissed. Can't you give me a reason why it was rejected?
Tom Scheck: It looks like, I think you said your wife was your witness, correct?
Jim Moses: Yes, correct.
Tom Scheck: It looks like she didn't put her address, which I believe is probably your address on the envelope.
Jim Moses: Yeah, it is.
Tom Scheck: So that was what the problem was, if that makes sense.
Jim Moses: Oh, okay. I suspected that, and the reason being is because I received an absentee ballot from August. And I read the directions and I kind of thought that maybe I did forget to do that.
Ike Sriskandara...: Wisconsin is one of 10 states that require witness or notary signatures, which can be harder to get in a pandemic. It's also just one additional step that voters can mess up. In the April election, about 23,000 votes were rejected. Wisconsin election offices don't record or release data about how many of those votes were Republican or Democrat. But what we can say is why they were rejected and the biggest reason was insufficient certification. A missing signature or address, 23,000, incidentally, seems to be the magic number in Wisconsin. Again, that's the number of votes that decided the last presidential election here. Tom Scheck.
Tom Scheck: So that kind of gives you the universe here of number of people in the state that had their ballots rejected. The bigger question here is, if Wisconsin is really close in November, and thousands of people don't get their ballots in the mail, or they put them in the mail and they don't get returned in time, or they're rejected for insufficient certification. And then there's a recount, then that really starts to become a problem. That number could make the difference between whose elected president or not.
Ike Sriskandara...: Election officials have looked closely at the April election, the late, the missing the rejected ballots, and say they're trying to fix the problems. They're coordinating with the post office, adding tracking barcodes on ballots, and reminding voters how to correctly fill them out and mail them in. But they are also expecting three times as many vote-by-mail ballots in November as there were in April. And the people filling them out won't necessarily have much experience because a lot of people who vote in presidential elections don't vote in other elections. And they tend to make mistakes filling out complicated ballots. With those complications in mind, I asked Tom, do you think the people in charge of that election are up for the task?
Tom Scheck: Yes.
Ike Sriskandara...: Hey, that's good news.
Tom Scheck: Yeah, I think they are and here's why, they had a major catastrophe. And it's kind of one of those things that you can learn through living. And so Wisconsin's kind of learning through living here, where other states maybe don't have that same knowledge.
Ike Sriskandara...: Dee Hall at Wisconsin Watch agrees.
Dee Hall: Subsequently, Wisconsin held two more elections, with much less drama. So I think there's a level of confidence.
Tristan Thomas: I wish I had that type of optimism. I'm trying to bring it up in myself.
Ike Sriskandara...: Tristan is skeptical. For generations, including through today, his family has struggled to hold on to this right in the face of persistent efforts to take it away. In this coming election, he still wonders, will their voices be heard?
Tristan Thomas: I'm just reading it for what it is. And it just, it seems like it's just going to be still as chaotic, but I'm hoping I'm wrong. I hope your colleague is 100% correct, that it will be much better than April's was.
Ike Sriskandara...: Did you ever miss an election or do you have a perfect attendance?
Tristan Thomas: Perfect attendance.
Ike Sriskandara...: Come on.
Tristan Thomas: I show up every single time because it's far too important. I have perfect attendance and I intend on keeping it.
Al Letson: Tristan says he and his wife have already returned their ballots by mail. So his perfect attendance voting record is intact. But Wisconsin will not start counting any mail-in ballots until Election Day. It's the same in a lot of states. And the big concern is, how long will it take to get a final answer on who won? No better place to answer those questions then my home state of Florida, home of the chaos recount.
Speaker 21: This is how you lose trust in the system, when you have shenanigans like this.
Speaker 22: I didn't get any validation that my vote has been counted.
Speaker 23: That's the biggest threat here.
Al Letson: That's ahead on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting at PRX.
Speaker 1: Bunga Bunga by Wondery reveals one of the greatest political spin doctors in modern history. Hosted by comedian Whitney Cummings, it tells a true story of how former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi used his media empire to hypnotize the Italian people to vote him into office and keep him there for almost two decades. Silvio promised Italy unity and economic prosperity. Instead, he threw wild parties with prostitutes, blackmailed officials and rewrote laws to protect himself. Like many men in power, Silvio thought he was invincible until two words brought his empire crashing down. Stay tuned after the credits for a trailer. Reveal is supported by Candid, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Every year, millions of nonprofits spend trillions of dollars around the world. Candid finds out where that money comes from, where it goes, and why it matters. That starts with asking questions. Like are small nonprofits at risk of shutting down? Do corporate donors care about racial equity? Or how concerned are foundations about the future of democracy? Learn more at candid.org/questions.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. While millions of Americans will vote-by-mail for the first time this year, people in Florida have a lot of experience with it. They also have experience with absolutely wild nail biter elections. Florida's the biggest swing state by population and is often the deciding factor in a presidential election. Who can forget what happened in 2000?
Speaker 24: Standby, standby. CNN right now is moving our earlier declaration of Florida back to the, too close to call column.
Al Letson: Florida's famous or infamous hanging chads helped decide the country's fate when it came to George W. Bush narrowly taking the presidency over Al Gore. WLRN Reporters Caitie Switalski and Danny Rivero cover politics and government in South Florida. They look back an election recount gone wrong just two years ago. The lessons learned can give us an idea of what we could expect in November if election officials aren't prepared or if voters send in their ballots at the very last minute.
Danny Rivero: Two years ago, the elections here in Florida were, I think we can say, a complete nightmare.
Caitie Switalsk...: It really was. There were three statewide races that were incredibly close, including the hugely divisive race for Florida governor between Democrat Andrew Gilliam and Republican Ron DeSantis. Then a U.S. Senate race between outgoing Governor Rick Scott and incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson.
Danny Rivero: On election night, we were already getting flashbacks to the disaster of the 2000 election. The results were coming in with razor thin margins, so we were watching that. But then something even weirder started happening.
Caitie Switalsk...: In Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale, I was still watching the live election results come in online at 2:00 AM. After all the precincts had reported 100% of their in-person votes. Somehow the number of votes kept going up. I was really confused. Where were these votes coming from? It was clear we were not going to get an answer that night. This was going to continue somehow tomorrow.
Danny Rivero: The day after the election the new votes kept trickling in. The vote counts for the candidates kept changing, because the county was still processing tens of thousands of vote-by-mail ballots.
Caitie Switalsk...: We kept asking how many more votes need to be counted.
Danny Rivero: And we couldn't get a straight answer. Two days later, we at least knew those three super tight races were close enough to trigger dun, dun, dun, recounts statewide.
Caitie Switalsk...: From this point, things became like a blur. A number of counties were having problems but Broward County was the epicenter. A mob of people descended on the election's warehouse here. That's the place where the counting machines are kept and where the recounts were going to start soon.
Speaker 27: Stop the steal! Stop the steal! Stop the steal!
Caitie Switalsk...: There were a few moments during these days where the crowds got rowdy and uneasy. People were pushing and shoving each other to try to get inside the warehouse. I got squished up against the doors during the coverage.
Speaker 21: This is how you lose trust in the system, when you have shenanigans like this.
Speaker 28: I think I'm numb to everything.
Speaker 22: I didn't get any validation that my vote has been counted.
Speaker 23: That's the biggest threat here.
Caitie Switalsk...: Democrats were tired and frustrated. They told me they weren't confident their votes were being counted in the first place. Republicans were ahead in all these races, but as everything that tallied, their margins of victory started to shrink. Republican Congressman from Northwest Florida was easily reelected. But he crossed the state to join in the protests.
Matt Gaetz: They do not know what they're doing. Rapunzel spun straw into gold, here you're spinning tens of thousands of ballots out of thin air, out of nothing. There's no chain of custody.
Danny Rivero: President Trump took a moment on the tarmac by Air Force One to cast his own doubts on the election results.
President Donal...: There's bad things have gone on in Broward County, really bad things. And all of a sudden they're finding votes out of nowhere.
Caitie Switalsk...: National media descended into Broward County. Fox News carried around the clock coverage. Politico magazine wrote, "How Broward County became the Florida of Florida."
Danny Rivero: Conspiracy theories were swirling. We know now that a lot of this was because of vote-by-mail ballots.
Caitie Switalsk...: Broward County had dropped the ball. They waited until Election Day to start counting tens of thousands of vote-by-mail ballots that had been sitting in boxes. Then on Election Day more flooded in, so of course they were behind.
Danny Rivero: But at the time, I really can't emphasize how confusing all this was. There were at least 10 lawsuits happening. People were screaming. You had candidates refusing to concede until all the votes were counted, and the tallies kept changing. After close to two weeks of election hangover, all the recounting was done and it was declared over. In the end, one of the seats actually flipped and a Democrat won the race for Commissioner of Agriculture. Republicans held on to their leads in the other state races, including Ron DeSantis in the divisive of race for governor.
Caitie Switalsk...: By the time Florida was finally getting over the election, it was close to Thanksgiving. And after the holiday, Broward County's mayor had to give an end of the year county address.
Speaker 30: I hope everybody had a wonderful Thanksgiving. We have a lot to be thankful for. Mainly that the election is over and we're no longer in the headlines. So we can count our blessings and then recount them and count them again and again and again.
Caitie Switalsk...: Everyone was ready to put the messy election behind them. The whole ordeal ripped open a deep sense of distrust in the elections process. A Broward County audit that was released this year reopened that wound. Among the things the audit found.
Danny Rivero: Half of the precincts reported more ballots cast than voters on Election Day.
Caitie Switalsk...: The election was understaffed.
Danny Rivero: The delay in counting vote-by-mail ballots held up the results of the entire election.
Caitie Switalsk...: And worst of all, the accounting office that investigated the election still can't say, two years later, that the 2018 election results were accurate.
Danny Rivero: After the chaos of 2018, other counties around the state bought new counting machines to prepare for November 2020. And some had their top election officials removed by the state for incompetence. Both happened in Broward County. Republican Peter Antonacci is the new Supervisor of Elections there. He's reorganized the elections office and changed vote-by-mail protocols.
Caitie Switalsk...: Florida's primary was back in August, that was less than two months ago. It was one of Antonacci's first big tests. The morning after Antonacci talked to reporters about the enormous pressure elections officials are under.
Peter Antonacci: We were assaulted yesterday by over 13,000 vote-by-mail ballots that came in on election day. That's the very thing that caused the meltdown in 2018.
Caitie Switalsk...: With the Coronavirus a lot more people voted by mail. This time Broward counted all the votes by around 2:00 AM. But one reporter honed in on the elephant in the room.
Speaker 32: There is the high likelihood that all the votes won't be counted on election night, right?
Peter Antonacci: It's not my goal.
Speaker 32: No, I know. But I mean, in terms of managing public expectations.
Peter Antonacci: For Broward County's part, we intend to count all our ballots election night or early the next morning. We finished last night at 2:00. We know what we're up against in November. But our goal is to finish that night and we're done.
Danny Rivero: It's going to be hard for that to happen if voters keep turning in their ballots right before the deadline on Election Day. And the number of voters requesting vote-by-mail ballots for the general election has more than doubled in Broward County already. It's still climbing.
Caitie Switalsk...: Ion Sancho has seen Florida's vote-by mail-landscape change. He retired in 2016, but he was the Supervisor of Elections for the state's capital for 28 years.
Ion Sancho: So really only since World War II, have we had election results that we could call an election night. This is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Caitie Switalsk...: But people expect it now. After the nightmare of 2018, the state passed a law to streamline the counting of vote-by-mail ballots.
Danny Rivero: The law lets elections officials start counting the ballots 22 days before an election. And they also tweak the deadlines to try to stop so many ballots from getting mailed in on Election Day.
Caitie Switalsk...: Sancho says it's still a tall order to expect all the results on election night.
Ion Sancho: And what I think the growth of vote-by-mail ballots means that's next to impossible. It's just next to impossible to do.
Caitie Switalsk...: Florida's more prepared for vote-by-mail than a lot of states. We've been doing it regularly since 2002, partly in response to the 2000 recount. But the volume of vote-by-mail is going to be like nothing the state has seen. This is a pandemic election. It is not going to be like previous presidential elections.
Danny Rivero: It's not just about when and how votes get counted. People are also majorly concerned about whose vote-by-mail ballot will get counted. Across the entire state, about one percent of mail-in ballots get rejected. This in a state where entire elections are typically decided by less than a quarter of one percent.
Caitie Switalsk...: Your ballot can get rejected if you forget to sign the envelope. If your signature doesn't match the one the county has on file, or if you submit too late. Daniel Smith is a professor of political science and a top elections researcher at the University of Florida. He says statistically some people's votes are more likely to get thrown out by their county.
Daniel Smith: Younger voters, people of color have greater difficulty having their ballots accepted, than do older and whiter voters irrespective of party.
Danny Rivero: According to Smith's research, getting your ballot tossed out is twice as likely to happen if you're Black or Latino. Smith is worried about the implications for November with all the new people voting by mail. If huge numbers of people switch from voting in person to voting by mail, and that one percent of votes gets tossed out, it could swing the entire presidential election.
Caitie Switalsk...: Smith points to Duval County in North Florida. It's the home of Jacksonville, a place that in normal years votes by mail in very low numbers.
Daniel Smith: The African American community in particular, over the last decade has really pushed voting in person during the early voting period. And so there is a tremendous concern about moving folks who have voted, voted regularly, and voted a ballot that counts into a new system.
Danny Rivero: Leslie Jean-Bart has lived in Jacksonville her whole life, and now she's working with a Democratic Party there.
Leslie Jean-Bar...: We are just now starting to actually push vote-by-mail. Otherwise, our thing had been vote in person that way you know your ballot is acceptable and that it counts.
Danny Rivero: More than two percent of vote-by-mail ballots were rejected in Duval County during the primary election in August. That's more than double the statewide rate. Leslie says this makes her nervous. Even though the party is pushing vote-by-mail to protect people's safety, an effort she's helping with.
Leslie Jean-Bar...: We really want to embrace it and I'm trying. I much prefer early voting or Election Day voting. There's just that security. You put your ballot in, you see the little number tick, vote counted, and then you're good.
Danny Rivero: In the lead up to the general election in November, Leslie says her work is almost entirely focused on educating people about how to vote-by-mail. Crossing every T and dotting every I to make sure their vote counts. Statistically, people voting by mail for the first time are more likely to make a mistake, like missing a deadline or not including a signature.
Leslie Jean-Bar...: That's why the voter education piece is critical. You can't just sign up a bunch of people to vote-by-mail and not educate them on how to do it.
Danny Rivero: This applies across the board. The more practice voters have, the more likely their votes will count.
Caitie Switalsk...: One Central Florida county has given its voters way more practice with this than the rest of the state. The Pinellas County elections office has been pushing vote by mail since 2008. And it held some all mail local elections as early as 2009. Julie Marcus is the county's Republican Supervisor of Elections.
Julie Marcus: When you bring a ballot to someone's doorstep, they're going to use it, they're going to participate in that election at a higher rate than persons who vote in person. That is not a theory, that is a fact.
Danny Rivero: When they first tried it, the county saw that voting by mail increased voter turnout, not just in general elections, but also in local elections and primaries. So they kept going.
Julie Marcus: Since 2010, every general election, over 50% of all ballots cast in an election has been cast by mail.
Danny Rivero: And because Pinellas County has been training people how to vote-by-mail for over a decade, very few votes typically get rejected there.
Caitie Switalsk...: If you're a Black voter in Pinellas County, you are 10 times less likely to have your vote thrown out compared to Manatee County next door. Researcher Daniel Smith says this is not reflective of the voters themselves.
Daniel Smith: No, it's because Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections has been pushing vote-by-mail. They've been doing civic education. They have been out in the communities encouraging people to vote-by-mail. They have drop boxes around the community.
Caitie Switalsk...: Pinellas isn't scrambling to figure out how to do this well during a pandemic. They've already been doing the work. But Florida counties are all over the map with vote-by-mail preparedness. It's unlikely that with a month left to go before November, other counties can catch up.
Danny Rivero: We won't know which voters will get included and who will be left out until Election Day. Or what could become election week, weeks, or even election month.
Al Letson: Thanks to Danny Rivero and Caitie Switalski from WLRN for that story. There's a big player in this vote-by-mail election that we haven't mentioned yet. The U.S. Postal Service, made up of workers who will deliver your ballot so we can be counted. This summer their work has come under attack.
Doug Brown: Some officers they've taken out machines where they were designated to process ballots. So we don't know how that's going to be handled.
Mary DeMarco: I do feel that we are being set up to fail.
Al Letson: We talked to the workers on the ground, ahead on Reveal for the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today on the show, we've been looking at how this year's election could hinge on mail-in ballots. And one of the concerns is the mail itself.
Speaker 39: Biggest retail business in the world today is the United States Post Office, devoted exclusively to the service of its owners, the American public.
Al Letson: The United States Postal Service has been a part of this country in one form or another since its founding. And it's so reliable that at one point, people actually sent their kids to see relatives across the country by shipping them in the mail.
Speaker 39: To speed the mail on its way, the post office makes use of many of the streamlined methods private industry has developed for increasing efficiency.
Al Letson: The whole mailing kids thing was short-lived, but that's how trusted the Postal Service was. And in more modern times, it routinely ranks as one of the most favored federal agencies. But today, its reputation and credibility are under attack from the President.
President Donal...: The Postal Service is a joke.
Al Letson: President Trump has long complained that the Postal Service doesn't charge enough. The agency used to be self-sufficient, even profitable. But it's been losing money for more than a decade, in large part because of changes that Congress made back in 2006. Which forced the agency to set aside decade's worth of retirement funds up front. Now, the Postal Service is $160 billion in debt.
Louis DeJoy: I'm here to represent the Postal Service.
Al Letson: Postmaster Louis DeJoy.
Louis DeJoy: All my actions have to do with improvement to the Postal Service. Am I the only one in this room that understands that we have a $10 billion a year loss?
Al Letson: Since DeJoy took over the postal service in June, he oversaw a series of rapid fire changes, which slowed mail delivery across the country, including in key battleground states. And at the same time, the man who appointed him, President Trump, was sowing doubt about whether mail-in ballots could be trusted, and whether the Postal Service was up to the task. All of this raising concerns about whether the Postal Service was being kneecapped ahead of the presidential election. With their agency embattled, we talked to career postal workers about what they've been seeing on the ground.
Daleo Freeman: Since the new Postmaster General has taken over, we've seen things put in place that would totally degrade the service even further.
Al Letson: Daleo Freeman is the president of the local chapter of the American Postal Workers Union in Cleveland, where he saw high speed mail processing machines taken offline.
Daleo Freeman: So a machine runs about 25, maybe 30, 35,000 letters per hour. So if you had 10 machines, right, and you take away five of them, right, so you can do the math. That's how much mail is not going to be processed.
Al Letson: He's one of the handful of union leaders we spoke to from the American Postal Workers Union. Doug Brown is the organization's Indiana state president.
Doug Brown: Some offices they've taken out machines where they were designated to process ballots, so we don't know how that's going to be handled.
Mary DeMarco: I'm seeing trucks now have to leave on time, whether or not there is mail there for them to take to the stations or not, which definitely is hurting our delivery.
Al Letson: Mary DeMarco is a postal clerk, a member of a local chapter in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Mary DeMarco: I do feel that we are being set up to fail.
Al Letson: About a half a million people work for the Postal Service. More than 20% of them are African American. 11% are Latino, and seven percent are Asian American. Lori Cash first joined the Postal Service 22 years ago, she saw it as a solid pathway to the middle class. She's the president of the American Postal Workers Union, New York area Local 183. And she joins me now. Lori, thanks for coming to talk to me.
Lori Cash: Thank you so much for having me.
Al Letson: You've been working for the Post Office for a really long time. Have you seen anything like this in your tenure?
Lori Cash: I never have. I've never seen anything like this, probably worked under three or four different Postmaster Generals in the time that I've been here. And never in that time have I seen them make such drastic changes so quickly with so little information behind it.
Al Letson: Yeah, I mean, I've read that study after study has found that mail-in ballots account for just a tiny sliver of voter fraud, something like .0025%. And yet, I can't remember a time when voting by mail has received this level of criticism. What do you make of it?
Lori Cash: I mean, if you look at the accusations that are being made out there, next to the fact of how many actual vote-by-mail fraudulent cases are, I mean, they are minimal, they're a fraction of a percentage. So we definitely don't have a vote-by-mail fraud problem in this country. The fact that we have leaders out there that are attempting to scare people into not voting by mail, and try to pass the Postal Service off as some type of agency that is going to somehow steal the election for one side or the other is preposterous. We've been processing ballots in several states for decades, and we've never had an issue. Anybody who is trying to put fear into somebody for voting by mail is afraid of having that many people go out and vote. That's the problem.
Al Letson: How busy is the postal service during the holiday season and how would that compared to this election season?
Lori Cash: We process more than a billion holiday cards every year. So the amount of ballots that are going to go through the mail are far less than the holiday cards that we processed. So with the equipment that we have right now, with the manpower that we have right now, processing the ballots for the election really isn't going to be difficult at all. We won't have a problem with it. As long as everybody gets their ballot early, like we've been suggesting, and they get their ballot back in the mail at least two weeks prior to their cutoff date in their jurisdiction, we won't have a problem processing the mail. The volume of ballots is much lower than what we normally handle during the holidays.
Al Letson: So earlier, we heard from one of your colleagues that mail trucks are now being forced to leave sorting facilities even if the mail hasn't been loaded, just so trucks can stay on schedule, how is that affecting you?
Lori Cash: If that mail is not ready at that cutoff time, even if it's only a couple minutes wait to get the mail out there, that truck has to leave. So that mail stays behind and in the meantime, more mail is coming in. So inside of our plants, we're seeing mail build up in some situations, even here in Western New York, to the point where the docks are so full that they're actually putting mail on tractor trailers and parking in the parking lot. Because the employees can't move around to get the mail that is going out loaded onto the trucks.
Al Letson: What's the rationale that they give you for the change?
Lori Cash: They're trying to save money, late trips cost them more money, according to DeJoy, who is a logistics person. I mean, he comes from a background of transportation. He has a very strong vested interest in many of the Postal Service's transportation competitors. So he looks at it as a late truck is lost money.
Al Letson: What's the morale like in the office that you're working in?
Lori Cash: I will say during July and August, it was difficult. Every day was a roller coaster. We had changes come down from up above that we were never made aware of ahead of time. So the transportation changes that came down, we didn't know about them until pretty much the day they were happening. So all of a sudden we were told things that we've never been told before. I mean, the Postal Service mantra is don't delay the mail, never delay the mail. The mail that comes in in the morning is the mail that goes out that day. And then all of a sudden to be told, okay, well, today that stops, we're not doing that anymore. Because if the mail's not ready when the carrier leaves, it's going to sit here until tomorrow. And that was very disheartening.
Al Letson: So a federal judge issued an injunction on the changes that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is making in response to lawsuits from multiple states. Is it too little too late?
Lori Cash: I don't believe it is. The best part of that ruling that came down was any office that had a machine taken out, if they request to have that machine replaced, that request has to go back before the judge. So now we stand the possibility of getting some of our machinery back, which is going to allow us to put some more of that technology back on the floor and be able to process the mail in some of those areas where they took it out. And if you look where they took the majority of the machines out, they're in states that are definitely going to have a huge impact on the election. So if we can get some of those machines put back, I think that'll definitely help with the processing those couple weeks before the election.
Al Letson: Yeah. When I was younger, much younger, I read this book by an author named David Brin. The name of the book, I think was The Postman. It got turned into a really bad movie with Kevin Costner. But I absolutely loved, loved, loved the book. I think I would say that the thesis of the book was, without a postal service you don't really have a country. And the only way you have a country is by a strong postal service that can reach people and connect people. Because that connection is actually what makes us Americans, is that we are connected to each other and the post offices is a vital way to do that.
Lori Cash: I 100% agree with that. We connect people through one person mailing to another person, mailing out birthday cards to each other, mailing anniversary cards to each other. Some people still write letters to each other. But we're connected in our community too, In some of our small offices, the Postal Service is like the morning coffee shop. People get their coffee, they go to the post office and get their mail out of their post office box. And they stand and have coffee in front and catch up on what's going on in their little town. We are definitely the glue that keeps a lot of communities together. And I think if you took the postal service out, so many people take it for granted. But once it's gone, I think the impact on this country would be devastating.
Al Letson: Lori Cash is the president of the American Postal Workers Union, New York area Local 183. And she works for the post office. Lori, thanks so much for your service and thanks for talking.
Lori Cash: Thank you so much for having me.
Al Letson: We are just a month away from Election day. So if you're voting by mail, request your ballot now and send it in early. Lori recommends at least two weeks before your local deadline. You can find info about how to register to vote, voting by mail, and early voting at vote.org. Again, that's vote.org. That story was produced by Najib Aminy with help from Byard Duncan.
Al Letson: Laura Starecheski, Brett Myers and Sumi Aggarwal edited the show. Thanks to Reveal's David Rodriguez for his help with the show. To Tom Scheck, Jeff Heng and Chris Worthington at American Public Media and Dee Hall and Jim Malewitz at Wisconsin Watch for their help on the story about the pandemic election in Wisconsin. Thanks to Taryn Shepherd, Alicia Zuckerman and Tom Hudson at WLRN in Florida. Thanks also to Lynn Heidelbaugh, curator at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum for their help with our story about the Postal Service. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel, our production manager is Najib Aminy. Score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando My Man Yo Arruda.
Al Letson: They had help this week from Amy Mostafa, our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camarado, Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Riva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.
Speaker 1: From PRX.