Update, Oct. 25: Berkeleyside has requested the investigator’s report related to the ballot guide dumping in Berkeley from Oct. 12. Glenn San Jose, from the inspector general’s office, says it’s not available yet because the investigation is ongoing: “Specifically, there is still the matter of a possible prosecution by the United States Attorney’s Office. The carrier had been identified and was interviewed by OIG agents on October 20.”
Berkeleyside will continue to follow up.
Original story, Oct. 18: Authorities with the U.S. Postal Service are investigating how nearly 100 sample ballots wound up in a Berkeley recycling bin last week along with the plastic ties that kept them bound together. As part of the same investigation, they are also looking into mistakenly returned mail that caused at least one Berkeley voter to lose his active registration status.
The Alameda County Registrar of Voters office says the problems are “isolated,” but some local residents say they aren’t so sure.
Longtime North Berkeley resident Scott Wheeler spotted the dumped voter guides last Wednesday, Oct. 12, in a bin near the 1600 block of Walnut Street when he was looking for discarded egg cartons for a friend’s chicken farm.
Wheeler said he was particularly concerned because he had just learned, the prior week, he had been inactivated by the Registrar of Voters due to some mistakenly returned mail. He said it was a real coincidence that both of the issues happened to him, and that he saw that coincidence as “serendipitous.”
“When I found those things in the bin, boy did I get cracking on this,” he said.
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Wheeler said he is concerned there’s an issue with a mail carrier potentially shirking duties in the neighborhood — or an even broader issue with the U.S. Postal Service — which could have potentially problematic results for elections. He said he also thinks the Registrar of Voters office needs to take more responsibility for the problems and do its own investigation and public outreach.
Augustine Ruiz Jr., a spokesman for the USPS in the Bay Area, confirmed Monday that the agency’s Office of the Inspector General is investigating the issue of the dumped ballot guides.
“We do know that it happened,” he said. He was unable to provide any additional information prior to publication time.
Wheeler said, from what he could tell, all the sample guides left in the bin had Berkeley addresses on them. The plastic strips, or bindings, that held the bundles together had been cut, but the stacks had then been seemingly dumped, en masse, into the recycling.
“It’s clear that these things had never been read,” he said. “And the bindings prove that.”
Wheeler said he counted more than 90 ballot guides after he brought them into his home to keep them from being carted away by the recycling truck. When he called authorities to report the discovery, they were very concerned, he said, and he was advised by the USPS to hold onto the guides as “evidence” until inspectors could come pick them up. He was told not to let anyone else touch or remove the guides.
Wheeler took the responsibility seriously. When a staffer from the Registrar of Voters office came by to try to get a closer look, Wheeler sent him away with little ado.
“I’m told this is now evidence, not just undelivered materials,” Wheeler told the man. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
That same day, two people from the Office of the Inspector General for the USPS picked up the guides from Wheeler’s home; they counted 96 booklets in total.
Wheeler said he has lived in Berkeley for 40 years and has never encountered a problem like this. He’s lived in his current home for 28 of those years and has been a longtime voter.
Resident: “They kind of were a little cagey”
Wheeler said he voted in the primaries and saw no legitimate reason as to why he would have been made inactive.
He said, after speaking with ROV staff on the phone earlier this month, he was told the office had sent out postcards to all one-time vote-by-mail residents to see if they wanted to make that status permanent. But that wasn’t the whole story, he said.
“They kind of were a little cagey,” Wheeler said. “They didn’t want to tell me the whole story. I kept asking questions.”
He says he was told the postcards were only supposed to go to one-time absentee voters, but instead went to permanent voters too, and that “a huge number of them” had been returned by the postal service.
Wheeler said he’s been frustrated because the ROV’s office would not initially admit a mistake had been made, and told him the postcard problem wasn’t a big deal because people who don’t receive their ballots would likely call on their own to find out why. He said he thinks — based on what ROV staff told him on the phone — the ROV’s office exacerbated the issue because it sent out so many postcards, which may have overwhelmed already understaffed postal workers.
“They’re scurrying around pointing fingers at each other and covering their butts,” he said, of the ROV and the USPS. He said he still isn’t satisfied with the answers he has gotten.
Wheeler said he was also told provisional ballots would be an option for those who find out about registration problems too late. But he said that is not very reassuring to him.
“This is a big deal,” he said. “It’s very convenient for them to have the Post Office be the bad guy, but the truth of the matter is they have complicity.”
Registrar: Federal investigation is now underway
Tim Dupuis, Alameda County Registrar of Voters, said Monday that the ROV was able to get sample ballots delivered to impacted voters the day after Wheeler’s discovery, Thursday, Oct. 13.
He confirmed, too, that the USPS inspector general’s office is investigating, and said he believes the dumped guides are an isolated incident.
Dupuis said, further, that his office only had one known report in Berkeley of someone being inactivated from the voter rolls due to returned mail linked to vote-by-mail-request postcards, and noted that multiple pieces of mail must be returned before someone is inactivated.
(In Wheeler’s case, there were reportedly two pieces of mail that were returned.)
Dupuis said both the returned mail and the dumped guides are part of the same federal investigation that is now underway.
Dupuis said returned mail is definitely a red flag as to whether someone should be registered to vote in Alameda County. At this point, he added, more than 60% of the county’s residents vote by mail on a permanent basis.
“We take it very seriously when we get something from the post office that says a voter no longer lives there,” he said. “The post office investigates and we investigate.”
Dupuis said “a pretty deep investigation” is done before changing anyone’s voter registration status, and that even someone who is made inactive can easily be re-activated by ROV staff on the phone or in person.
Berkeley City Clerk Mark Numainville, who was contacted by Berkeley Councilwoman Linda Maio about Wheeler’s case, told her by email that “An inactive voter may still vote in the November 8, 2016 election. The ROV does not and is not conducting any voter roll clean up this close to an election.”
Despite Dupuis’ description of Wheeler’s case as “isolated,” several Berkeley residents have reported problems with their voter registration status.
One woman, who saw Wheeler’s post on the Nextdoor neighborhood social network website, told Berkeleyside she, too, had problems.
“I also have a permanent absentee ballot. I’ve voted in every election. We have lived in the same place for 30+ years. I was also disenrolled and would not have even known to check if I would have seen this. I cannot believe these postcards were returned to the post office. I have a secure mailbox and there is no reason why I would not have received the mail,” she wrote.
Wrote another, in response to Wheeler’s story on Nextdoor, “Just checked — said both my husband and I were invalid! Will call on Monday!”
Registrar: 3 ‘Forever’ stamps needed for Berkeley ballot
Dupuis confirmed Monday that postcards were sent to one-time vote-by-mail voters — to see if they wanted to become permanent vote-by-mail voters — but said there had been no widespread postcard returns.
The last day to register to vote in Alameda County for the upcoming election is Oct. 24, Dupuis said, and the last day to request a vote-by-mail ballot (previously called “absentee ballots”) is Nov. 1.
Anyone with questions about voter registration status can check their “voter profile” online, or can call into the Registrar of Voters office or visit in person. It’s also worth noting that multiple residents have reported being unable to look up their status online using their social security number, but the driver’s license information has worked.
Also worth noting: The ROV’s office says three Forever stamps cover the cost of the four pages in the Berkeley ballot. (Unofficial estimates to mail the 2016 Berkeley ballot have ranged from 89 cents up to $1.36.) There’s also a secure 24-hour drop box outside the Berkeley municipal building at 2180 Milvia St. that does not require any postage.
Berkeleyside will update this story if authorities provide additional information about how the guides ended up in the recycling bin, and what the scope and impacts of returned ROV postcards has been.
Update, 7:20 p.m. Glenn San Jose, deputy special agent in charge with the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General (Pacific Area Field Office), described the ballot guide dumping as “an unfortunate situation” that seems thus far to be “an isolated incident”. He said, by email, his office “takes these matters very seriously and is diligently conducting an investigation to determine, first and foremost, whether any criminal misconduct has occurred.… Our office has not received any similar allegations involving any other ballot documents.”
Berkeleyside welcomes news tips from readers. Reach our team by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org or call reporter Emilie Raguso at 510-459-8325. Tipsters can remain anonymous.
(Note: This story was updated shortly after publication to include additional information from Scott Wheeler. The headline also was updated.)