Mystery of Strangely Disappearing — and Reappearing — Postal Boxes

Supes Authorize Extra $850,000 to Safeguard November Elections

A small group of demonstrators protest the removal of mail collection boxes along Patterson. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Last Friday, a jumbo-sized blue metal postal box was mysteriously unbolted from its 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 the fate of the missing box was. His staff, he said, was still looking into it. But in the meantime, its abduction would trigger a collective howl of protest from Santa Barbara’s progressive community that would last well into Tuesday, by which point two new boxes had been surgically plopped onto the concrete slab just as inexplicably as the first one had vanished.

The boxes were not really the issue. Their disappearance, however, proved to be 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 DeJoy — the onetime Trump campaign fundraiser whom Trump just appointed his Postmaster General — issued warnings to 46 states that cost-cutting service reductions he had started to implement at the Postal Service might be at odds with their election schedules. The timing of when ballots are mailed out and back in could result in many 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 — 1,800 in the last week alone. Not since Immigration and Customs Enforcement began separating children from their parents two years ago, Carbajal recounted, have his constituents been so riled up about anything. 

This Tuesday afternoon, Carbajal — running for reelection against conservative Republican Andy Caldwell this November — showed up for a victory rally at the Patterson Avenue post office to celebrate the return of drop-off mail services. In prior interviews, Carbajal had accused DeJoy of trying to sabotage voter turnout on behalf of the president to whom he’s donated more than $1 million. By the time Carbajal addressed the crowd of about 25 mask-wearing well-wishers, DeJoy had announced he would hold off on the cost-cutting measures that had generated a national firestorm of intense controversy until well past the November 3 elections. Carbajal greeted this news with skeptical optimism. “You never know,” he cautioned. “Talk is cheap.”   

And straight answers, he added, remain hard to come by. By Monday morning, two different explanations surfaced from officials with the U.S. 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 choose.

According to an email Postmaster Gonzalez sent out, “The boxes will be replaced with modified snorkels that will prevent phishing.” The boxes back on the street as of Tuesday morning, however, had no such snorkels.

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 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 DeJoy — 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 capable of sorting 20,000 letters in two hours’ time. Postal Service PIO Patton 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, Patton replied, “We have no additional information at this time.” When asked again, she said the same thing. 

Carbajal said he ran into a similar stone wall in his dealings with the same agency. None of the large letter-sorting machines, he said he was told, will be removed from the Goleta facility. When he asked about overtime reductions for postal workers, he said he got “no answer.”

As for the snorkel, Carbajal said he saw no evidence of the modifications postal service administrators assured him would be made to stop thieves from stealing checks and vandals from depositing firecrackers down the chute. As for the new mail slots that postal administrators said would be placed on the side of the mail boxes — thus enabling members of the public to drop off mail after hours when the boxes will otherwise be locked — Carbajal said he saw no such things.

Carbajal said when he goes back to D.C. on Friday, he will be voting for a bill that would add $25 billion to fund the Postal Service so that it can respond to the emergency needs of processing a national presidential election in the time of COVID. That funding, he noted, was included in the House stimulus bill passed by the Democratic majority three months ago. Up until now, the president has termed such funding excessive and has balked at approving any stand-alone deal involving the Postal Service.

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 DeJoy 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 20.

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. 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. Provisional ballots are only counted once the election registrar determines the voter is who they said they are and that the person did not vote elsewhere in the same election.

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 vote-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, as 30 percent of Santa Barbara voters typically do — at polling stations. These will be open not just on Election Day but for four days. The last day, of course, will be Tuesday, November 3, when the polling stations will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., 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 skill, he said, and will need to be paid more than the $160-$240 stipend paid to poll workers in March. 

The key — according to campaign managers, Democratic Party strategy, and the decidedly nonpartisan Holland himself — is to 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.”

This story was updated on Tuesday morning and afternoon to reflect new events on the ground. The date Friday, November 6 was also corrected to November 20 to reflect new information that a new California rule extended the previous three-day postmark rule by two weeks.


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