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Changes to USPS operations in Oregon could impact election mail

Outside, a large, square silver metal box next to a road. On it are some red stars and the words, "Jackson County. Official Ballot Drop Box."
Roman Battaglia
JPR News
One of the official ballot drop boxes outside the elections office in Medford, Ore. May 8, 2024.

If you’re still waiting to return your ballot for the Oregon primary election, use an official drop box. Recent changes to mail processing in Oregon have led to questions about the speed of the postal service.

Ahead of the upcoming Oregon primary election on May 21, the United States Postal Service, or USPS, reduced the amount of services that take place at its local processing centers in Medford and Eugene.

Part of a national plan called “Delivering for America” that started in 2021, these consolidations have been opposed by local postal workers, community members and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Oregon is famously the first state to conduct its elections completely by mail. Changes to how the USPS delivers that mail could prevent some votes from getting counted.

“It was kind of surprised upon us,” said Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker. “In fact, I didn't find out about it until I read it in the newspaper that they were going to have a public meeting. And my big concern was, why weren't we reached out to before that?”

Walker said she does work closely with the USPS, but didn’t hear anything about these specific plans.

A woman sitting at a desk wearing a white shirt, white cardigan, with long blonde hair. She is smiling into the camera. Behind her are a large assortment of papers, manila folders and binders.
Roman Battaglia
JPR News
Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker at her office in Medford, May 8, 2024.

“We have active communication throughout the year with our USPS partners, not just locally, but statewide and federally,” Walker said.

The major way this could affect election mail is around the timing of mail delivery. Unless the USPS changes how it processes election mail, almost all ballots in Oregon will be sent to Portland just like all the other mail.

If your ballot doesn’t receive a postmark by election day, it’s not going to be counted. A postmark is a stamp the USPS uses to show when the letter was received.

Because of the changes in Medford and Eugene, almost all letters sent in Oregon now won’t receive that postmark until they arrive in Portland for processing.

According to the USPS, a small number of zip codes in southeastern Oregon are serviced by the Boise, Idaho distribution center.

Inside the USPS

Zane Longden is the vice president of the local USPS union in Southern Oregon. He also works at the processing plant in Medford that was recently downsized.

“Our last truck leaves at about 6:30 at night,” he said. “So it’s about five, maybe six hours to get up there. Then that mail has to be offloaded, brought into the plant, put into a machine and run. So the possibility of it being postmarked the day that it was actually given to the post office is debatable. It's 50/50, it's really kind of up in the air.”

That postmarking process happened much quicker before Oregon operations were consolidated, when it only took a couple hours at most to get from places like Klamath Falls to the plant in Medford. So the time it takes for mail to get postmarked is longer now.

There are also other factors out of the postal service’s control that could delay the mail on its way to Portland. Things like weather, wildfires, or even a major car crash could impact the mail when operating on such tight timelines.

“It's not just weather, but if there is a civil unrest. You know, there's one road,” Longden said, referring to the protest in Eugene that shut down a portion of I-5 last month. “If something happens that road is blocked. Weather, people–trucks can’t get through. It's hours to go some other way.”

Jeremy Schilling is the president of the local postal workers union and an employee at the post office in Phoenix, Oregon. He said they inevitably get some kind of delay during the year that prevents mail from getting to Portland.

“It happens every single year,” he said. “Usually it’s in the winter, but without fail every single year, there will be a time when the north pass is closed or the southern pass is closed and mail doesn't come in or go out.”

Luckily, most elections in Oregon take place in either May, during the primary election, or in early November during the general election. According to historical National Weather Service data, the likelihood of a major snowstorm in early November between Medford and Portland is very unlikely.

But, another proposed consolidation in Nevada would send mail from Reno to Sacramento. Those trucks would take I-80 over Donner Pass, named after the famous wagon train that got trapped in an early November snowstorm.

USPS spokesperson Kim Frum declined to be interviewed. But, in an email she said, “Postal Service employees deliver the mail in all kinds of weather, and while the safety of our employees and the communities we serve is a top priority, we plan for various weather issues throughout the year including making sure employees have the tools and training needed to safely do their jobs.”

"Why are we going to add fuel to the fire to those people's already biased belief that somehow there's wrong-doing in the process?"

According to their report on the 2022 election year, on average it took less than two days for ballots nationwide to be delivered between voters and elections officials.

“It's not a huge amount,” said Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker about the amount of ballots they typically receive that either have a postmark past election day or arrive past the seven day deadline. “I would say it's about half of 1%. So it's pretty minimal.”

The machines that the Medford processing plant used for outgoing mail were removed from the building. But, postal workers Longden and Schilling say in the past, they have manually sorted through and pulled out election mail, so it can be postmarked by hand and delivered directly to the county clerk’s office.

“I think another important thing to highlight is that we're walking backwards, right? It's 2024, we're a vote-by-mail state. Yet, we are now fully relying on the human element,” said Schilling. “The human element should be reserved for an emergency situation. We have so much technology, the technology was in the building. They literally made a conscious decision to remove it. I just don't see how that could not adversely affect elections.”

Longden said ensuring that ballots are delivered as quickly as possible not only improves trust in the USPS, but improves trust in Oregon’s election system. Vote-by-mail elections have been attacked in recent years.

“Why are we going to add fuel to the fire to those people's already biased belief that somehow there's wrong-doing in the process,” Longden said.

Further changes prevented nationwide

Criticism of mail center consolidation have slowed these changes in other parts of the country.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced this week that further consolidations under the national Delivering for America plan will be paused at least until next January.

This is in a response to a letter sent by 26 senators earlier this month. They called for a pause, as well as for the USPS to seek a study and an advisory opinion from the Postal Regulatory Commission, which provides oversight of the USPS.

“We are told that mail that is sent to the sorting center in Portland will be postmarked in Portland. That's a problem,” said Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley who signed the letter. “So I just want folks to know if you're mailing your vote on the last day, mail it a day earlier, mail it several days earlier, drop it off in a dropbox”

A white building with blue trim and roofing. A sign at the top of the building has the USPS logo and says, "United States Postal Service. Medford, Oregon MPC, 2195 Sage Road"
Roman Battaglia
JPR News
The local processing center in Medford, Oregon, May 8, 2024. Outgoing mail operations that used to take place here were recently moved to Portland.

This announcement from DeJoy, however, doesn’t affect facilities that have already undergone this consolidation. Kim Frum from the USPS would not provide a list of locations that have already been consolidated, and no definitive list is available on the USPS website.

Based on publicly available information, facilities in Oregon, Georgia and Virginia have already been consolidated. At least 50 other facilities are approved for consolidation.

Longden, Schilling and Merkley said they’d like to see the existing changes reversed.

“But it will cost money to restore what's been taken apart,” said Merkley. “It means machinery. In some cases they took out the machinery and destroyed it, which is just an unbelievable crime. I think it was to try to lock it in and make this irreversible.”

If you live in Southern Oregon, it’s risky to return your ballot in the mail right now. Walker said that if you’re returning your ballot by mail, it should be done no later than a week before the election, which was last Tuesday, May 14.

If you still have your ballot, the best option is to drop it off at an official election drop box around your county before 8 p.m. on May 21. Walker said that means you know it will be counted.

A list of official drop boxes are available on the secretary of state’s website.

Roman Battaglia is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the JPR newsroom.