Mystery of Disappearing Postal Boxes

Last Friday, two redoubtable blue metal postal boxes were mysteriously unbolted from their concrete moorings adjacent to the drive-through drop-off lane in front of the Patterson Avenue Post Office in Goleta and then hauled off to points unknown.  No explanation was provided. By Sunday afternoon, not even Congressmember Salud Carbajal could say for certain what was the fate of the two missing boxes. His staff, he said, was still looking into it.

By that time, however, the unexplained disappearance of these two boxes had become Exhibit A for legions of Santa Barbarans convinced that President Donald Trump was intentionally sabotaging the Postal Service in order to depress voter turnout and save his political skin come November’s elections. That’s because late last week, Louis DuJoy—the one-time Trump campaign fundraiser who  Trump just appointed his Postmaster General–issued warnings to 46 states that he was implementing cost cutting service reductions at the Postal Service might be at odds with their election schedules. The timing of when ballots are sent out could result in many ballots not being counted.  Although Trump himself has requested a vote-by-mail ballot, he has long contended that the system of mail-in voting is rife with fraud and abuse. Though no evidence of the accuracy of this charge exists, Trump administration officials are now insisting there’s no evidence that it isn’t, either.

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Congressmember Carbajal may not have known what happened to the boxes, but he knew his constituents were outraged. They told him so. Since March, Carbajal has heard from  4,500, district residents–1800 in the last week alone. . Not since Immigration and Customs Enforcement began separating children from their parents a year ago, Carbajal recounted, have his constituents been so riled up about anything. 

By Monday morning, two different explanations started to surface from officials with the US Postal Service. Both could be true. But they don’t quite line up. According to Santa Barbara’s Postmaster, Caren C. Gonzalez, the Patterson Avenue boxes were removed to stop thieves who stole checks out of the post boxes using an approach known as “mail phishing.” According to Gonzalez, this theft has “resulted in thousands of dollars of loss to our customers.” Harry Hagen, chief tax collector for the County of Santa Barbara confirmed he’s received “a half dozen complaints” from property owners this year who claimed they mailed in their property tax checks, but that he never received them. (Normally, he said he gets just one or two.)  Such stolen checks, Hagen said, would be washed with enough bleach to erase the name of the check’s beneficiary and the amount, allowing the “mail phishers” to write in the names and amount they chose.

According to an email Postmaster Gonzalez sent out, “The boxes will be replaced with modified snorkles that will prevent phishing.”

 But according to Meiko S. Patton, the Sacramento-based  Communications Specialist for Postal Service’s “Sierra Coastal District,” Gonzalez spoke out of school. “I am the spokesperson,” she declared. “Questions need to be directed to me.”  According to Patton, the Postal Service evaluated “collection box density” for each box every year to identify lesser-used used collection boxes. The volume of First Class mail has been on steady decline, Patton explained. The Postal Service, it turns out, is looking at a revenue shortfall this year of $20 billion. Trump’s appointee DuJoy—who assumed command on June 15–is aggressively pushing a number of cost reductions,  including the elimination of overtime pay for postal workers and the retirement of nearly 70 massive mail sorting machines, each one being capable of sorting 20,000 letters in two hours time. Postal Service PIO Bannon said notices are typically posted on boxes slated for retirement so that customers have the opportunity to comment. Given customer concerns, she said, no additional removals will take place in the next 90 days.  When asked whether the two boxes will be returned and if so when, Bannon replied, “We have no additional information at this time. When asked again, she said the same thing. 

In response to COVID, election officials throughout the nation are figuring out ways voters can cast their ballots while not waiting in long lines where social distancing is all but impossible. The obvious answer is the mail-in-ballots, which once-upon-a-time, were favored by wealthier, whiter, and decidedly more Republican voters.  More recently, however that’s changed as Democratic strategists have embraced what was once known as “the absentee ballot,” which in their hands has become a potent force for getting out a younger, more diverse, and more progressive breed of Democratic and No Party Preference voter.

A protester stands next to where the mail collection boxes use to be along Patterson. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

The biggest challenge posed by the slower, more sluggish Postal Service as envisioned by DuJoy and Trump is in states where ballots are not accepted after election day. Many of those states, coincidentally, happen to be crucial battleground states, such as  Pennsylvania. In California, by contrast, all ballots postmarked Tuesday November 3 will be counted so long as  they aren’t collected past Friday November 5.

But even that, said Santa Barbara’s Elections Czar Joe Holland, can be challenging. When the City of Santa Barbara conducted its first ever all-mail-in election last year, hundreds of voters called up expressing their confusion. Where is my ballot, they demanded? Many, it turns out, threw their ballots in the trash, mistaking it for so much junk mail. Many of these voters were allowed to cast what are known as “provisional ballots,” which sometimes are counted and sometimes not depending on how close the election is. (TK)  For county elections workers, however, such ballots require far more time and effort. Signatures must be matched with that of the voter’s county registration form. Pains must be taken to ensure that a voter hasn’t cast any other ballot. 

Although some candidates have alleged fraud, the only issue Holland said his office has verified involve parents signing mail-in ballots on behalf of their children. These cases, he said, are referred to the District Attorney’s office. No charges, he said, are filed, but cautionary warning letters are sent. Because so many ballots were cast late and provisionally in March, county voter counters needed a two week extension on top of the 30 days they normally have to tabulate election results. 

This Tuesday, the county supervisors approved accepting $851,000 in federal COVID relief dollars funneled through the California Secretary of State’s office,  funds to help address the logistical nightmares posed by COVID-19.  Boiled down to its essence? Vote early. By law, Joe Holland needs to get ballots delivered to every registered voter no less than 29 days before the November election. That’s October 5. Holland said he’s hoping to get that delivery date moved up a few days so that voters have it a weekend sooner. That may or may not be possible given that so many of California’s 58 county elections chiefs will be doing the same thing and there are only so many companies capable of printing such massive jobs. 

Even though this year marks the first time Santa Barbara County has conducted an all-mail election, it really won’t be all mail. This year, Holland said, the county will operate 25 fully equipped, computerized,  and staffed voter assistance centers where residents can vote the old fashioned way, like 30 percent of Santa Barbara voters typically do—at polling stations. These will be open not just on election day, but for four days long. The last day, of course, will be Tuesday November 3, when the polling stations will be open from 7 am to 8 pm, as usual. The other days they’ll be open for eight hours. In the March primary, by contrast, the county fielded 86 polling stations.   

In addition, Holland said, the county intends to open 33 drop-off centers where voters—perhaps Postal Service phobic—can drop off their mail-in ballots in person. The precise locations of these sites has not been determined yet, but they will be scattered throughout the county. In recent elections, the county operated just three such centers.

All this, Holland stressed, will require more polling workers than normal. In a normal year, he said, his office hired 900 polling workers. In the March primary earlier this year, he said, 130 called in sick in response to COVID. For this election, Holland estimates he’s going to need 450 polling workers a day, which translates to 2,200 work days as opposed to 900. These poll workers will require a greater degree of computer skills, he said, and will need to be paid more than $160-to-$240 stipend paid to poll workers in March. 

The key—according to campaign managers, Democratic Party strategy, and the decidedly non-partisan Holland himself is vote early. The sooner Santa Barbara voters get their ballots turned in the sooner they can be collected and the less chance they will be effectively disenfranchised by new federal postal service reductions. Because last minute voters—younger and more diverse–skew strongly in favor of Democratic candidates, Democratic party operatives will be waging an especially intense voter education campaign this year. Don’t throw out that ballot, voters will be warned. Turn it in sooner rather than later. All this will, inevitably, will prove far easier said than done. “It’s been over-the-top difficult to put on this election,” Joe Holland lamented. “And we’re still in the throes of it.”

Every day, the staff of the Santa Barbara Independent works hard to sort out truth from rumor and keep you informed of what’s happening across the entire Santa Barbara community. Now there’s a way to directly enable these efforts. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.


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