On eve of special election, congresswoman and elections supervisor scrutinize postal center that processes Broward’s mail ballots

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Concerned about the possibility of another election in which mail ballots arrive after the deadline and go uncounted, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Broward Elections Supervisor Joe Scott on Monday inspected the big mail processing center that handles Broward’s mail.

The issue burst into public attention in November when the Broward-Palm Beach County special Democratic primary election for Congress was decided by five votes — after almost 300 mail ballots arrived late and were disqualified.

After their tour, Wasserman Schultz and Scott reported they were somewhat satisfied.

“The police didn’t meet me at the front door this time, so that was comforting,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Mr. Scott and I were allowed into the facility, and we had an opportunity to not only tour the facility, the entire facility, but particularly focus on the process that the U.S. Postal Service goes through when processing mail-in ballots. We had a chance to really dig fairly deep.”

It wasn’t a surprise visit, however. The tour was arranged about a week in advance with the Postal Service, which has previously blocked both from getting inside the Royal Palm Processing and Distribution Center.

Broward’s mail is handled by the Royal Palm center in Opa-locka. In 2012, as part of a nationwide cost cutting move, the Postal Service closed the mail processing centers in Fort Lauderdale and Pembroke Pines and shifted the work of sorting Broward’s mail to Miami-Dade County.

Timely handling of mail ballots — long known to election insiders — has become a more critical issue.

  • Voting by mail has grown in popularity after its widespread use was authorized by Florida two decades ago. Its use skyrocketed in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic convinced more people than ever to vote from home.
  • Mail service has slowed in the last two years, especially since the June 2020 appointment of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who was a supporter of former President Donald Trump. DeJoy remains in office, and on Oct. 1 put in place his plan to save money by lengthening times for mail delivery and cutting post office hours.
  • Florida has a strict deadline for mail ballots. They must be in the hands of county supervisors of elections offices at 7 p.m. on Election Day, or they won’t be counted. Postmarks don’t count.

A total of 297 mail ballots — 287 of them from Broward County voters — were postmarked on or before Monday, Nov. 1, but didn’t arrive at the supervisors of elections office until after Election Day, Nov. 2. Under Florida law, they weren’t counted.

“Obviously this was a serious problem,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Something happened, and we were asking what steps they’ve taken” to prevent a repeat.

Wasserman Schultz and Scott said Postal Service officials they met with during the tour didn’t agree that anything went wrong in November, at least from the perspective of the Postal Service.

Broward Supervisor of Elections Joe Scott and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23) hold a news conference on Monday Jan. 10, 2022 after touring the U.S. Postal Service Mail Processing Facility in Opa Locka, Fl. During the special congressional primary last November, hundreds of mail ballots went uncounted even though they were postmarked before election day, Florida law doesn't allow those ballots to be counted. Officials toured the facility to ensure timely ballot deliveries for Tuesday's special general election.

Broward Supervisor of Elections Joe Scott and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23) hold a news conference on Monday Jan. 10, 2022 after touring the U.S. Postal Service Mail Processing Facility in Opa Locka, Fl. During the special congressional primary last November, hundreds of mail ballots went uncounted even though they were postmarked before election day, Florida law doesn’t allow those ballots to be counted. Officials toured the facility to ensure timely ballot deliveries for Tuesday’s special general election. (Susan Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

“They’re not even acknowledging that’s what happened,” Scott said.

Postal Service spokeswoman Debra Jean Fetterly said by email Monday night there were no ballots remaining at the Opa-locka facility at the deadline on Nov. 2. “Regarding ballots in elections for Florida’s 20th Congressional district, a representative of the Broward County elections office collected all ballots at the Royal Palm processing center on Nov. 2, as per the prearranged process.”

The elected officials met with Robert L. Johnson, the Royal Palm plant manager, and regional Postal Service officials. Fetterly the Postal Service “welcomed” the visit – and others from “our external stakeholders on a pre-approved basis.”

“The Postal Service has a robust and tested process for the proper handling and timely delivery of election mail,” Fetterly said.

The elected officials said the Postal Service gave them a tour of the facility and explained how they handle ballots. “We’re not here to attack them. We want to work with them,” the congresswoman said, adding she hopes that there is now the start of a “trust relationship.”

“The relationship is going to be closer,” Scott said.

He said his office would continue longstanding policy of having staffers at Opa-locka to pick up any ballots that arrive at the center close to the 7 p.m. deadline so they’re in the possession of his office and can be counted.

But he acknowledged it’s inevitable that some ballots will arrive after the deadline.

Both Scott and Wasserman Schultz repeated Monday what they’ve said before: they’d like to see Florida law changed so that ballots postmarked by Election Day are counted even if they’re received at the election office after 7 p.m. that day.

“That’s something that should be changed,” Scott said, standing outside the postal center. “if they find a bin [of ballots] in this building Wednesday morning I can’t count them.” He said that state law works to “disenfranchise voters.”

He and Wasserman Schultz spoke with reporters outside the mail processing facility, after their tour.

Democrats would like the state Legislature to make that change, but it has no chance of becoming law. The leading Republicans who work on election issues in the Florida House and Florida Senate have said they see no reason to change the deadline. Republicans control both the House and Senate.

Wasserman Schultz is a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. One change she said Monday she’d like to see has to do with the Postal Service: the independent agency’s Board of Governors should fire DeJoy, the postmaster general. That’s something many Democrats have long sought.

On primary day in November, Scott said he visited the Postal Service sorting facility in Opa-locka. He said his staff reached out to the Postal Service in the morning to say he’d like to see inside the Opa-locka facility that afternoon.

After waiting for an hour after arrival, he said the plant manager denied him access.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23) talks with U.S. Postal Inspection Service officer Gus Cabanas, left, at the U.S. Post Office Miami Processing & Distribution Center in Miami, where she was denied entry on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23) talks with U.S. Postal Inspection Service officer Gus Cabanas, left, at the U.S. Post Office Miami Processing & Distribution Center in Miami, where she was denied entry on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. (Amy Beth Bennett / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Wasserman Schultz has toured the postal center before. But in September 2020, Postal Service police blocked her from the Royal Palm center when she showed up for what was supposed to be a 4 a.m. tour. She was told that national Postal Service leadership ordered her barred from the building. The Postal Service said at the time she hadn’t provided sufficient advance notice.

The incident came after members of Congress had been investigating growing delays at the postal service, raising concerns about whether it would be able to handle the heavy number of mail ballots in the presidential election.

She said she would continue her efforts to change federal law to make clear that members of Congress don’t need to provide advance notice to inspect Postal Service facilities.

An uninvited guest turned up at the Wasserman Schultz-Scott visit. On his last day as a Broward County Commissioner, Dale Holness arrived and attempted to participate, arriving in one area of the facility where the others were meeting with Postal Service officials.

Holness wasn’t invited but “gained access to the postal facility without our awareness and he left,” Wasserman Schultz said. “He was there briefly.” Scott said he was talking with Johnson, the plant manager, when he looked up and saw Holness. The next time he looked in that direction, he said Holness was gone. He said Holness heard “through the grapevine” that the meeting was taking place.

Holness has a particular interest in ballot handling. He lost the Nov. 2 Democratic primary to Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick by five votes. If the late arriving ballots had been counted, the results might have been different.

Holness was in his final hours as a County Commissioner because he had to resign from office to run for Congress.

Mail ballots were sent out in early December to voters in the Broward-Palm Beach County 20th Congressional District for the Jan. 11 special general election.

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Some Broward and Palm Beach county voters are also voting in primaries to pick replacements for three state lawmakers who resigned their seats so they could legally run for the congressional nomination. All three lost, but their resignations were irrevocable.

Through Sunday, Broward voters had returned 30,782 mail ballots, according to a report posted online by the Florida Division of Elections. That represents 26% of the 120,444 mail ballots that were sent to Broward voters.

Palm Beach County voters had returned 12,205 mail ballots through Sunday, representing 26% of the 46,181mail ballots that were sent to county voters eligible to vote in Tuesday’s elections.

Far fewer people used in-person early voting for the nine days it was offered, ending Sunday. In Broward, 3,983 people voted early, the state Elections Division reported. In Palm Beach County, 1,220 people voted early.

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