U.S. Postal Service investigates ballots mailed through Opa-locka facility

The U.S. Postal Service is investigating its handling of absentee ballots mailed through a sorting facility in Opa-locka to “verify that all ballots have been handled in accordance to USPS service standards.”

A small group of activists gathered outside the federal building on Friday claiming possible voter suppression and sharing photographs they claimed showed scores of uncounted ballots sitting inside the facility’s mail room.

“At this time, we have no information to suggest any ballots were not properly handled and provided to local election officials, per our established process,” said Debra J. Fetterly, a USPS spokesperson with the South Florida District. “The Postal Service recommends that ballots be mailed as early as possible, in order to receive a postmark prior to or on Election Day.”

Local activists said an employee of the mailroom claimed scores of ballots had been sitting there for up to several weeks. But the Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections office said there was “zero” chance any ballots had been invalidated during the mailing process and that any ballots mailed late would eventually be delivered to them.

“What we are demanding is some transparency,” said Caroline Thompson of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization. She was one of about a dozen activists waiting outside the facility and asking to speak with a USPS representative about their concerns.

“Voters deserve to know if their ballots are sitting in a mailing facility,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, whose district includes Opa-locka, said the USPS told her office that the ballots left behind at the facility were postmarked after Nov. 6 — Election Day — and thus were not eligible to be counted.

The Florida Division of Elections states on its website that absentee ballots must be received by the Supervisor of Elections office no later than 7 p.m. on Election Day. But a 10-day extension is offered for overseas voters, such as members of the military.

“We investigated the rumor because people were calling our office,” she said in a statement. “We learned from the post office supervisors we regularly deal with that they had ballots, but they were postmarked after the election and therefore not eligible to be counted. After every election an extensive sweep for ballots is conducted but that’s all they had.”

Robert Rodriguez, the county’s assistant deputy supervisor of elections, said that on Election Day, his staff checks the post office three times throughout the day to ensure they account for all mail-in ballots. Any ballots mailed through the Opa-locka facility would eventually reach the county office, whether they were mailed on time or late, he said.

“If they’re there, they will end up at our office,” he said. “Just because you put the postmark of Election Day doesn’t mean it will be counted.”

The razor-thin margins in Florida’s races for U.S. Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner have brought increased scrutiny to the elections officials in South Florida, especially in Broward County. Recounts are possible in the three races.

The Opa-locka facility is the same one that processed some of the suspected pipe bombs mailed off to prominent Democrats and critics of President Donald Trump, but the USPS said “the recent incidents of suspicious packages had no impact on operations or on acceptance and tendering of ballots to election officials.”

“The U.S. Mail serves as a secure, efficient and effective means for citizens and campaigns to participate in the electoral process, and the Postal Service is committed to delivering election and political mail in a timely manner,” Fetterly said. “We employ a robust and proven process to ensure proper handling of all election mail, such as ballots. This includes close coordination and partnerships with election officials at the local, county, and state levels. For the 2018 election, local postal officials performed regular checks for all ballots received and tendered those to the election office.”

Miami Herald staff writer Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report