Activist and retired software engineer John Holme holds up a "Save the USPS" sign outside the North Oakland post office. Credit: Pete Rosos

For months, United States Postal Service workers in Oakland kept their cool while dealing with a viral pandemic, a record number of package deliveries, and then, as summer wore on, reports from across the country about highly alarming Trump administration postal service interference. 

Even as mail collection boxes were suddenly and suspiciously removed from big and small cities—Missoula, New York City, Portland—postal service workers in Oakland felt insulated from it all, multiple employees told The Oaklandside in interviews over the past few weeks. There had been no sign of interference in Oakland that would stymie their most important duty in 2020: delivering voters’ ballots to Alameda County officials in time to be counted.

Then, on Friday, August 28, in a surprise move, the USPS removed six downtown mail collection boxes

The decision was made by the district manager of the United States Postal Service’s Bay Valley district, Mark Martinez. The Bay Valley district stretches from Santa Cruz to Oakland, covering eight counties and over 5 million people, with about 200 post offices and about 10,000 employees. USPS communications officer Augustine Ruiz, Jr., who is based in San Jose, said in a statement to The Oaklandside that Bay Valley district leaders decided to remove the boxes in Oakland to protect them from possible property damage ahead of Black Lives Matter protests scheduled that weekend. 

Coming at the end of two months of scandal-riddled management by new U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, that explanation didn’t satisfy many in Oakland. 

U.S. Representative Barbara Lee, whose congressional district includes Oakland, condemned it as a strike against voting rights. “The removal of essentially all sidewalk collection boxes in our city center less than three months before a national election is alarming to say the least. And doing so in response to protests is a highly unusual and unfair penalty for communities like Oakland that often engage in dissent and protest against injustice,” she wrote in a letter addressed to DeJoy.

Lee also noted that the action conflicted with DeJoy’s own congressional testimony days earlier, promising he’d order post offices to stop removing or altering equipment ahead of the 2020 election. Not following through on his promise, Lee said, will “cause confusion” and “could have a chilling effect on voting in my district.”

Oakland mayor Libby Schaff said the removals appeared to be politically motivated. “Trump’s regime will stoop to any level to interfere with a free election. Their cowardly attempt to suddenly remove mailboxes from downtown Oakland won’t silence our voice or stop our vote,” she told the East Bay Times.

For Oakland mail handler Jose Ogawa, who’s been with USPS since 2006, the removals were the first sign that Oakland residents do indeed have something to worry about this election season. “They’re trying to discourage us from actually getting to the ballots. They’re taking away our mailboxes. They’re doing all kinds of things to discourage the voter,” Ogawa said in an interview. 

A 14-year employee at the West Oakland mail sorting facility, Jose Ogawa comes from a long line of USPS workers. Credit: Pete Rosos

On social media, some noted that the USPS hadn’t removed mailboxes in Oakland during previous months of protests connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, and that there was no evidence that mailboxes had been damaged in those protests, or that mail had been compromised. When The Oaklandside asked USPS for evidence of protest-related damage to USPS property, either in Oakland or throughout the U.S., Ruiz, Jr. said that was “impossible to ascertain.” 

Don Sneesby, vice president of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union’s western office and a USPS employee in Washington state, told us that he had “never heard” of that excuse to remove mailboxes before. “Who targets mailboxes?” he asked.  

The Oaklandside reached out to postal workers in Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York, all cities that have experienced major protests in recent months, to find out whether similar mailbox removals had occurred there. Only one USPS employee we spoke to, a mailman from Minneapolis, said “a few” mailboxes had been removed ahead of a protest, sometime in June. Those boxes were returned two weeks later. 

A veteran of the post office for more than ten years, the Minneapolis postal worker asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. In late August, during national outcry over mail system interference by Trump administration appointees, the national USPS office sent a memo to managers and workers telling them to not speak to the media. 

For this story, we reached out to the heads of the three main postal unions represented in Oakland, the heads of the Bay Valley district, and to numerous other postal workers through email, phone, social media, and in person. Most declined to comment on the record—including all Bay Valley district officials. 

San Francisco-based developer and data specialist Kerry Rodden has been keeping track of changes to local USPS collection boxes since August 15. She noted that three more downtown boxes had been removed on August 28, but had largely escaped notice: one more on Clay Street, and two at 14th and Franklin. 

You can see all of the boxes removed on August 28 below. 

The uproar in Oakland grew throughout that weekend. USPS told The Oaklandside they returned the removed boxes on Monday, August 31. We were able to visually confirm that nearly all of the boxes were returned. We were unable to check on the box taken from 130 Clay Street, which is in an area that’s off limits to the public during the pandemic.

For some Oakland postal workers, the downtown mailbox removals were a sign they need to stay vigilant. “I’m suspicious of any directives from this Postmaster General,” said Oakland mail carrier Joshua Pearl, who works in the North Oakland office at 4900 Shattuck Ave. and writes a newsletter for local branch 1111 of the National Association of Letter Carriers, a postal workers’ union. “His overriding motive seems to be to hamper our ability to efficiently handle election mail.”

Joshua Pearl also works with the National Association of Letter Carriers’ East Bay branch 1111. Credit: Pete Rosos

Given these recent developments, we wanted to help answer crucial questions about election security. What happens to your ballot after you drop it in a collection box? Where are the weak points in the system—and is the process secure against attacks by bad actors? Is there anything Oakland residents who choose to vote by mail can do to make sure their vote is counted?

We asked postal workers in Oakland and other large cities to shed light on these questions. Here’s what we learned. 

The all-important sorting machines

As long as no one messes with the all-important sorting machines in Postal Service facilities, USPS employees say, local plants will be able to handle this fall’s surge of mail-in ballots.

A single letter-sorting machine, known as a Delivery Bar Code Sorter, or DBCS, can process about 35,000 items an hour, sorting them by zip code. Even if the whole voting age population of Oakland (about 330,000 people) decided to vote by mail, workers tell us, the machines at West Oakland’s 7th Street plant—the largest facility in the city—are more than enough to rapidly sort all the ballots.

Last month, reports began to emerge that letter-sorting machines were being disassembled or removed in a few places around the country. NPR reported that after Trump appointed DeJoy to run the postal service in May, 40% of the sorting machines in the Seattle-Tacoma area were disconnected without reason and “pushed into a corner.” The same thing happened in Boston. In other cities, dismantled machine parts were found in empty parking lots. 

On September 9, a USPS official told a federal court that over 700 sorting machines have been removed this year, “roughly double the machines USPS typically removes in a given year.”

Local workers tell us there are three or four DBCS sorting machines in Oakland, and there’s no evidence that any of them have been removed or tampered with this year. We’ll continue to keep an eye on this issue.

Of course, even if every sorting machine in Oakland is plugged in and running on all cylinders throughout this election, they represent just one step in a complex process. Next, we’ll walk you through more of that process, and what happens before and after ballots get sorted.

What happens after you drop your ballot in the mail?

The mail collection box at 4201 Telegraph Avenue is one of 169 boxes in the city. Say you drop your ballot in the box when voting begins. When the neighborhood mail carrier gets to that box—each box is emptied at least once a day, except most Sundays and holidays—she dumps all of its contents into her mail bag in one fell swoop and continues on her route. She also picks up ballots by hand from houses and businesses along her route.

She ends her route at the North Oakland post office at 4900 Shattuck. Any ballots she picked up by hand are placed in a special bin for election mail. The contents of this bin, along with the still-unsorted contents of her big mail bag—including your ballot—are transported via truck to Oakland’s central processing plant at 1675 7th St., near the West Oakland BART station.

At the plant, unsorted mail from Oakland’s 14 neighborhood post offices gets unloaded by mail handlers and fed by clerks into a machine called an Advanced Facer Canceller System, which, a helpful USPS video explains, “uses cameras to locate the stamp, read the address and handwriting against a database of known addresses, faces the letter in the right direction, and sprays it with a unique ID tag that cancels the stamp with a postmark.” 

After running through the AFCS machines, they end up in big crates. Mail handlers bring to the powerful DBCS sorting machines, where they’re fed by hand into the machines by mail clerks. A special barcode on ballots signals the machines to spit them out onto their own separate pile. Then they’re loaded onto a pallet, along with ballots picked up by hand by mail carriers all over Oakland. The pallets are delivered by truck to the Civic Center Oakland Post Office at 201 13th St. 

From there, Tim Dupuis, Alameda County’s Registrar of Voters, and his team pick up the ballots and take them to the county registrar’s office at the René C. Davidson Courthouse downtown. The county registrar is responsible for registering all voters, hiring officers and volunteers, and providing information to the public—including the final voting tally. 

Dupuis told The Oaklandside they pick up ballots from the downtown courthouse “first thing in the morning, every day,” and that mail-in ballots are the “first ones that get processed,” with results available a few minutes after polls close on election night.

Dupuis also revealed that 28 official ballot-drop boxes, which only his team has access to, have already been installed throughout Alameda County, and that a total of 66 will be in place before Nov. 3. 

People worried their ballot will get mixed in with other mail and slowed down that way can rest easy. The USPS automatically gives ballots Priority Mail designation, which is faster than First Class Mail.

And some good news for Californians: a state bill approved earlier this year requires elections officials to accept a greater number of delayed ballots than before. In previous elections, ballots that arrived four or more days after Election Day weren’t counted. Under the new law, any ballot postmarked on or before November 3 that arrives up to 17 days after the election must be counted.

If you really don’t trust the postal service to deliver your ballot, you can of course vote in person or skip USPS altogether by dropping it in a secured ballot drop box, where it will then be taken straight to the registrar’s office. Here’s a map of the current and planned ballot drop box locations in Alameda County, and our guide to voting in Oakland.

Regardless of how you vote, this year, for the first time ever, Californians can digitally track their ballot by signing-up for Where’s My Ballot, an online service run by BallotTrax through the California Secretary of State’s office. You can get notifications through email, phone, or text when your ballot is mailed, received by election officials, and counted. 

A mailbox flanked by murals at 799 Broadway, one of several mailboxes downtown that were removed and later replaced. Credit: Pete Rosos

What if a postal worker wants to mess with your ballot?

In the last 20 years, there have only been a few documented instances in which a postal worker tampered with ballots. The most recent case occurred five months ago, when a West Virginia mail carrier admitted he changed ballot requests so that Democratic primary voters would have received ballots for Republican primary candidates. He did so by simply crossing out the original request and choosing “Republican” instead, and was caught when a county clerk spotted the changes. If convicted, the mail carrier faces up to eight years in prison. 

It’s also important to note that, unlike during primaries, general election ballots—like the ones we’ll all use this fall—are not labeled by party affiliation. So a postal worker will have no way of knowing whether you’re likely to be voting for Democrats or Republicans when they pick up your sealed ballot.

Oakland mail handler Jose Ogawa said that employees work so close together in post offices and plants that shenanigans are hard to hide from fellow workers. “Not only do we not have time to even look at envelopes or packages, because they go so fast and there are so many, that taking time out to do something like that would be easy to see,” he said. 

The USPS has also designed clever safeguards against fraud into its mail processing facilities. This official USPS handbook spells out thousands of rules governing the construction of post offices and other postal buildings, and the surprising amount of worker surveillance that’s built into the system. In some post offices, postal inspectors—federal officers who can make arrests—can secretly spy on mail handlers through a system of walled-off soundproof catwalks called “lookout galleries” hanging from the ceiling. CCTV cameras and other round-the-clock digital surveillance abounds.

In an email to The Oaklandside, the Office of Public Affairs at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service told us the mail remains “a secure, efficient, and effective means for citizens to participate in the electoral process, and the Postal Service is proud to serve as a critical component of our nation’s democratic process,” with “a proud history of identifying, arresting, and assisting in the prosecution of criminals who use the nation’s postal system to defraud, endanger, or threaten Americans.”

Ogawa says intentional ballot manipulation is highly unlikely to occur inside a USPS facility, especially in Oakland. More likely, he says, is a general slowdown based on one factor here and across the country: the pandemic. 

The coronavirus’s impact on the mail system—and how DeJoy has responded

USPS customer Sarah Fernholz drops a postcard addressed to Senator Mitch McConnell in the mail, part of a local protest to protect the U.S. postal service. Credit: Pete Rosos

Oakland USPS employees say the service’s vaunted national infrastructure, which employs hundreds of thousands of people in 34,000 offices across the country, running large processing plants 24/7, has been severely challenged by the coronavirus. They make it clear that the pandemic is largely to blame for recent slow delivery times. 

But they also say Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s actions have made things worse. National data and accounts from employees and customers bear this out. 

During a congressional hearing led by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform last month, the release of internal documents showed that mail had slowed down by about 8% since DeJoy implemented new rules in mid-July, including a requirement that delivery trucks leave processing plants on time—no later than 9 a.m.—even if there’s more mail to sort, resulting in delays for unsorted letters.

Overtime also came up during the hearing. DeJoy said his department “never eliminated overtime,” and that it had “not been curtailed by me or the leadership team.” Yet in a memo early in his tenure, DeJoy’s office explicitly said some forms of overtime would “be eliminated.” 

“We are paying too much in OT and it is not cost effective and will soon be taken off the table. More to come on this,” the memo said. Enforcing this new expectation in the middle of a massive pandemic, and the eye-popping rise in package delivery that followed, unsurprisingly led to slower service.

On top of all this, workers say, is the issue of sick leave due to COVID-19. “The stress level we’ve been dealing with for months now is difficult. I’m 53, so I’m not low-risk. And we’re still on the street. There’s a lot of people not wearing masks,” Pearl said, noting that a lot of mail carriers he works with are in their 60s. In good news, epidemiologists say the virus is unlikely to be transferred through the mail.  

The Postal Service in Oakland, according to the USPS’s Augustine Jr., has about 800 employees during the year and typically hires about 100 or more seasonal workers during the high-traffic holiday season. The USPS accelerated hiring over the last few months, but as we saw earlier this summer with UPS and other delivery companies, it hasn’t been enough. And the need for new clerks—workers who operate the powerful DBCS machines—is great. 

Multiple Oakland residents told us they’ve experienced serious package delivery delays, well beyond one or two days, over the past two months. Matt Freitas, who lives in West Oakland, told us he ordered Black Lives Matter gear that hasn’t arrived in more than a month. Michael Klein, who lives in Montclair and sends packages to his son in Arizona, told us an item sent through First Class Mail, which is supposed to arrive within one or two days, was held up for weeks in July.

Every postal worker we spoke with for this story said they hope the Senate approves an emergency bill that will put $25 billion into the USPS so more employees can be hired, fast. The Delivering for America Act, which passed the House on August 22, is meant to ensure that all mail operations, including any necessary overtime, continue without further disruption through the November election and the end of the pandemic. The bill is currently before the U.S. Senate, awaiting consideration.

Oaklanders show support for postal workers

USPS customer John Migel, Jr., gets ready to ride away on his electric bike after signing a post card to help support the USPS. Credit: Pete Rosos

Every USPS worker we spoke with said they’re glad more Americans are paying attention to the postal service right now. 

Pearl said he’s been hearing a lot of “thank you for your service” calls while out doing his job, which he feels a little sheepish about since that’s usually reserved for members of the military. 

Ogawa, who’s part of a longtime postal service family—his mother is a former manager and his son is a new recruit—says he’s feeling a heightened sense of mission. “I feel good because what we’re doing is important,” he says.

Don Sneesby, the western regional mail handlers’ union official, told us, “it’s been pretty surreal to be front and center in the news every day. At first, it was a little depressing. And then with the media starting to look into it and the public starting to get indignant, it really felt like we were being supported, and America felt like they needed us and wanted to fight to protect the service.”

Some Oakland residents have been trying to show postal workers their support beyond sharing nice words. John Holme, a recently retired software programmer and long-time North Oakland resident, has been calling friends, setting up listservs, and staging protests with friends, family, and strangers at the North Oakland post office on Friday afternoons. “I’m not seeing enough people out there in the streets,” he said. 

Holme said one of the most important messages he wants people to remember, especially in this year of mass protest against racial injustice and in support of Black Americans, is that the USPS is a diverse organization that employs a lot of Black people who might lose their jobs if, he says, Trump gets a second term and ends up privatizing the public institution. 

Rafael Jesús González, the first poet laureate of the City of Berkeley, who’s lived in Oakland and Berkeley most of his life, said he’s been on the streets with signs and a face mask to inspire USPS workers to continue to do their jobs.

“Democracy depends on the postal service. Our vote will depend on the carriers,” says González. “The post was in place before Independence itself.”

González wrote a poem about the importance of the postal service in this year of pandemic, protest, and election paranoia. He gave us permission to reprint it here, in English and in Spanish.

Dead Letter Office, by Rafael Jesús González

The say a scrivener

went mad from years of working

in the dead letter office,

that undelivered love letter,

broken hearts; the bank note,

a starving child; those words

of hope, of condolence, of solace

forever sealed, unread, cut short

weighed on his heart, his mind.

What lives did they cost,

those letters dead, undelivered?

May not a destination be a destiny?

When ballots are not delivered

could not a democracy be destroyed,

a tyranny assured?

In a dead letter office

a scrivener lost his mind;

in a dead letter office

a country can lose its liberty.

Oficina de cartas no entregadas, por Rafael Jesús González

Cuentan que un escribano

se volvió loco de años trabajando

en la oficina de cartas no entregadas,

esa carta de amor no entregada,

corazones rotos; el billete de banco,

un niño muerto de hambre; esas palabras

de esperanza, de condolencia, de consuelo

por siempre selladas, sin leerse, cortadas

le pesaban el corazón, la mente.

¿Qué vidas costarían

esas cartas muertas, no entregadas?

¿No sería una destinación destino?

Cuando balotas no se entregan

¿se destruiría una democracia,

aseguraría una tiranía?

En una oficina de cartas no entregadas

un escribano perdió la mente;

en una oficina de cartas no entregadas

un país puede perder la libertad.

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.