“I’m pissed off. We’re not getting mail for some reason,” said Wilford, who now plans to go to the polls in person Tuesday. “I’ve had one heart attack already and I’m not trying to have another.”
Confusion and frustration rippled through the Charles Horn Towers housing complex, three gray concrete high rises in a neighborhood still scarred by the protests that followed the death of George Floyd, as a sudden mail stoppage prevented residents from getting absentee ballots in advance of Tuesday’s primary.
The reason was unclear: Some blamed a rumor of an outbreak in the high rises that scared off postal carriers, even though the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority said just three residents have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The U.S. Postal Service said in a statement to The Washington Post that it halted service there until it could be sure that proper social distancing measures were in place.
Although delivery finally resumed Friday — nine days after residents first reported the stoppage — voters said it was too close to Election Day to feel confident that if they put their absentee ballots in the mail they would arrive in time to be counted.
The episode provides an early look at the kind of problems that could enmesh voters across the country in November, when an influx of absentee ballots and high turnout are expected to collide with a potential surge of coronavirus cases. Mail delays have been reported in various states in recent weeks as the Postal Service has rolled back overtime and extra delivery trips under the direction of a new postmaster general, a top donor to President Trump.
The sudden halt to mail service in Horn Towers is an acute reminder that, all too often, those who face barriers to voting are the poor and people of color.
Residents of Horn Towers are predominantly Black and Somali speakers, with a median gross annual income of less than $10,000, according to housing officials. Fliers posted at the property by the Housing Authority said officials were working to resolve the mail problems, and urged residents to call local postal supervisor for more information. Some who called said they were placed on hold for so long that they gave up.
Markus Ellis, a 49-year-old resident, said his mother tried to get her mail by going to the post office, but could not get any answers. Ellis said he was still waiting Friday for his absentee ballot to arrive. Now he plans to show up at the polls in person.
“I can’t wait any longer, because I want my vote to count,” he said. “It’s stalling our votes and that’s not right at all. We feel like every person’s vote should matter.”
As with many cities and states throughout this year’s primaries, Minneapolis has had a record number of absentee ballot requests for Tuesday’s election — nearly seven times the number cast in the 2018 primaries, according to city election officials.
The city has seen a surge of voter interest around the competitive race of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D), who rose to national prominence as a member of the “Squad” of four liberal women of color elected in the 2018 wave of Democrats who regained control of the House. She is running against Antone Melton-Meaux, a mediator and first-time candidate.
Residents of Horn Towers first reported that they were not receiving mail on July 29, said Jeff Horwich, a spokesman for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority.
Housing officials were told that postal workers had “concerns about covid-19,” Horwich said. However, the agency said just three residents have tested positive.
“Looking at the actual numbers, it appears to have been more of a matter of perception than reality of covid cases in that building,” Horwich said.
The Housing Authority has required masks and social distancing of the residents at all of its properties, and is providing coronavirus testing on-site.
However, the Postal Service said in a statement that it had concerns about social distancing on the property and worked with the building’s management to make sure that letter carriers would be safe delivering mail.
“There are rare situations when social distancing cannot be guaranteed because of the placement of mailboxes or mailrooms,” the statement said. “In this situation, USPS worked with building managers to create safeguards in the distribution area. . . . We regret the temporary inconvenience to our customers.”
According to the Postal Service, the stoppage delayed the arrival of two or three ballots at the complex. All deliveries were back to normal by the end of Friday, the agency said.
But during a visit to the property Friday, a reporter for The Post interviewed three people in just one small group of residents who were still waiting for ballots, indicating the number of delayed ballots was likely larger.
According to city records, at least 95 ballots had been mailed to the complex since late June and just 55 had been completed and returned as of Thursday night. It is unknown why the outstanding ballots have not yet been returned.
Ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday and arrive at the city elections office by end of business on Thursday to be counted.
After inquiries from The Post, elections officials printed fliers for Horn Towers on Friday, alerting residents to how they can vote if they have not yet received a ballot or if they do not feel confident putting their ballot in the mail.
Voters can visit the city elections department on or before Election Day to request and cast a new absentee ballot in person. The city tracks when a voter’s ballot has been returned in the mail, so it can cancel an extra ballot and that only one vote per person is counted.
Voters can also drop off absentee ballots at the city’s drop boxes.
“We’re trying to provide as many options as possible so that every voter’s ballot counts,” said Grace Wachlarowicz, Minneapolis’s director of elections.
State officials on Friday suggested that voters who had not yet mailed their ballots should consider other options. When asked by Minnesota Public Radio if it would be safe for voters to mail their ballot Friday, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said: “It depends how much risk you are willing to tolerate.”
But for many residents in Horn Towers, voting in person or visiting the city elections office may be difficult.
About two-thirds of the residents there report a disability, and nearly 70 percent are over 62 and at greater risk of falling severely ill with the coronavirus, according to data from the Housing Authority.
The towers are one block from Lake Street, a commercial corridor where many shops and businesses were destroyed by fire in the unrest following the police killing of Floyd. Across the street, the boarded-up remains of a burned-out Wells Fargo Bank are visible.
Sitting Friday in the outdoor courtyard, which had only recently reopened after being closed because of the pandemic, residents of Horn Towers wore masks as they spoke about their anxiety and frustration over the mail. Checks they needed to pay bills and medications were stalled for days.
Gary Madsen, 67, a Vietnam War veteran who has lived in the complex for 14 years, said he had not received his diabetes medication for eight days. His wife received her ballot Friday, when delivery finally resumed. She filled it out and mailed it back, but was worried it wouldn’t arrive in time to be counted, he said.
“This was the worst mistake they could have made, at a time when we are facing an election and need our meds,” he said, sitting in a wheelchair bearing an American eagle sticker with the word “Veteran.” “This is a situation that should not have ever happened.”
Goyette reported from Minneapolis.