With more people expected to vote by mail than ever before, one of the nation's most trusted institutions is about to be tested — at a time when insiders are already raising alarms.
After hearing from residents across the capital region complaining of mail slowdowns, the News4 I-Team partnered with a dozen NBC stations around the country to put the U.S. Postal Service to the test ahead of the November election.
"I think is a great idea; I think it's a really great idea," said Northeast DC resident Nancie Dorsey. "We had mail that was stacked up from like the early part of July that was delivered just recently."
On Aug. 14, investigative teams from a dozen NBC stations around the country mailed each other 155 first class letters, across town, across state lines and across the nation.
The I-Teams tested home addresses in major cities, like Washington, D.C., and suburbs like Ashburn, Virginia, and Columbia, Maryland.
Postal Delays Across the U.S.
12 NBC Stations sent 155 letters on August 14th. Here’s how long it took for them to arrive.
Source: NBC Stations
Credit: Anisa Holmes / NBC Washington
Eighty-eight percent of our letters arrived within three business days, just as the postal service advertises. Another 10% made it within a week.
But two letters still have not arrived after 17 days. Those letters were mailed from New York to Houston and from Chicago to New York.
"I just hope people are paying attention," said Sharon Dixon, who lives about two blocks from Dorsey in the Eckington area of the District.
Dixon didn't need to watch the postmaster general testifying before Congress or the hundreds of protesters marching past his Kalorama home last week to know there are problems with the mail.
"I don't get mail on a daily basis. I get mail maybe once, if I'm lucky, twice a week," said Dixon, adding that service has been declining for a few years, but it's gotten really bad this summer.
Her family has experienced delayed bills and missing birthday cards, creating a lot of questions.
"If it's not coming to me, where is it?" wonders Dixon. "Is the mail lost? Has it been stolen?"
The American Postal Workers Union spoke up in the past few weeks blaming recent changes put in place by their new boss, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.
"It's affecting the job that we're trying to do and we are very proud of doing," said APWU President Mark Dimondstein.
Dimondstein says the removal of mail sorting machines has slowed processing in some places, but he says DeJoy's new policy forcing trucks to leave on time is the main cause of delays. Mail that isn't ready gets left for the next day — or days later.
"Now they're saying just leave it behind," said Dimondstein. "And, you know, the DNA of a postal worker is never leave mail behind. So it's very troubling to us, very concerning."
DeJoy told Congress his new policy meant the trucks should leave on time with all of the mail on board.
"At no time did I say don't put the mail on the trucks when they left on time, this was not a hard, direct, everything must leave on time," testified DeJoy. "We still have thousands of trucks a day that leave late."
DeJoy said he was keeping that new "leave on time" policy in place, although he did agree to walk back a reduction in overtime to make up for work hours lost when 40,000 postal employees were forced into COVID quarantine.
"Somebody has to work those hours for you to be able to get your mail," said Dimondstein, hoping those hours are restored quickly.
The Postal Service is not funded with tax dollars, it survives on revenue from stamps and postage fees. It's asked Congress for $25 billion in COVID relief. The union says that's on par with what other hard-hit industries have received.
In the NBC test, one letter took six days to get from Washington, D.C., to Columbia, Maryland, about 25 miles away. A letter mailed on the same day from San Jose, California, arrived at that Maryland address at the same time as the letter from D.C.
The Postal Service also delivered one of the letters, sent to a home in D.C., to the wrong address. It was later hand-delivered by a neighbor.
"I did not think was just me but I was just surprised that it was so many other people that was having the same issues," said Dorsey.
The I-Team mailed Dixon three test letters from post offices within a half hour of her home. The first was from Arlington, Virginia, on a Tuesday, then Glen Echo, Maryland, on Wednesday and the third from Washington, D.C., on that Thursday. All three letters arrived together that Saturday.
The inconsistency makes both women worry about getting their November ballot, which the DC Elections office is mailing to every voter. Postcards to confirm voters' addresses went out weeks ago.
"I never got that. My husband, who is a registered voter, he never got that. We never received that at our house," Dixon said.
The postmaster general has acknowledged the mail slowdown but said he's already making changes to fix it. He also agreed to count all ballots as first-class mail to make sure they get priority. He says the postal service can absolutely handle the volume of mail ballots will add.
Dorsey said she's planning to take her ballot to an election drop box, if it arrives by mail. Dixon isn't even counting on that.
"I'm going to stand in line, because even if the ballot arrives and I fill it out, I don't have faith that it'll be processed," Dixon said.
Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper and Steve Jones.