Lily Aaronson says she has voted in every presidential election since 1948, after she escaped Nazi Germany with her family and arrived in New York City in 1941. This year, she voted again — but only thanks to a Herculean effort by her son and some special accommodations by the Miami-Dade elections department.
Aaronson, 93, requested a vote-by-mail ballot Oct. 4. Elections officials mailed it out four days later, records show. But Aaronson and her son, Geoffrey, said late last week that it still hadn’t arrived in her mailbox at Miami Jewish Health, an assisted living facility in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood where she has lived for six years.
In fact, Miami Jewish Health CEO Jeffrey Freimark told the Miami Herald that the assisted living facility and an independent living facility on the same campus — which house a combined 120 residents — went about a week in mid-October without getting any of their regular daily mail deliveries from the U.S Postal Service.
Lily and Geoffrey Aaronson said that even after mail delivery resumed last week, she had only gotten bulk mail — no first-class mail, including her ballot.
“Just a lot of junk. Ads and things like that,” said Lily Aaronson, who takes an elevator down to the first floor of her building to check her mailbox. Asked if it was important to her to vote in this election, Aaronson, a registered Democrat, told the Miami Herald: “It’s important for me to vote all the time.”
Finally, on Tuesday, the ballot arrived in Aaronson’s mailbox — 19 days after it was supposedly mailed out by the elections department. But by the time she saw it, a Miami-Dade elections official had already hand-delivered a replacement ballot to her on Tuesday. She filled it out and her son delivered it, with her permission, to a drop-box at the Frost Museum of Science early voting site.
Geoffrey Aaronson, a Miami-based bankruptcy attorney, started asking questions when his mother’s ballot hadn’t arrived by Oct. 14. He began calling the front desk of her building each day, he said, and was told there had been no USPS delivery to the building on six out of seven days between Oct. 14 and Oct. 20.
On the one day mail was delivered, Oct. 17, his mother only received bulk mail, and still no ballot, Aaronson said.
A Miami Jewish Health spokeswoman, Leah Broderick, said the facility filed a complaint on the USPS website on Oct. 20 after failing to reach anyone by phone.
The next day, Broderick said, “two large bins of mail” were delivered to the facility. But again, according to Aaronson, no first-class mail came for his mother. He said this was atypical, not only because of the missing ballot, but also because his mother regularly gets bills and other first-class mail.
Ultimately, Aaronson spoke with Miami-Dade elections officials and they agreed to hand-deliver a replacement ballot to his mother on Tuesday. That’s not standard protocol. Typically, voters who request a new ballot are sent one via mail.
“We are making an exception in this particular case,” said Miami-Dade deputy elections supervisor Suzy Trutie. “Our goal is to ensure this voter gets their vote-by-mail ballot.”
It’s not clear whether any other Miami Jewish Health residents may have failed to receive their ballots. As the 5 p.m. Saturday deadline to request a replacement ballot approached, staff at the facility told Geoffrey Aaronson they were knocking on doors to find out if other residents needed a replacement.
Ultimately, the facility didn’t identify anyone else who needed a ballot ahead of the deadline. But Aaronson said he believes it’s likely his mother wasn’t the only one affected, given the gap in mail delivery and the assistance that many residents at the facility need to complete the voting process.
“There’s gonna be a whole bunch of votes that are not made out of this facility because of this situation,” he said.
The U.S. Postal Service told the Herald that, according to the manager of the local post office that serves the facility, there was no gap in mail delivery. The local post office manager said “that we delivered daily to both addresses on the Miami Jewish Health building,” according to USPS spokeswoman Debbie Fetterly.
Miami Jewish Health officials say that’s not true, and that “there appears to have been a gap in mail delivery by the USPS to residents” between Oct. 14 and Oct. 21.
“There was, in fact, a disruption in that delivery pattern,” said Freimark, the CEO.
Local union representatives, both for the American Postal Workers Union and the National Association of Letter Carriers, offered a different explanation. They said overstuffed mailboxes at Miami Jewish Health were making it difficult to deliver mail, and that many residents didn’t seem to be checking their mail frequently enough.
But Geoffrey Aaronson said his mother’s mailbox was empty until late last week when it became filled with junk mail, which he said looked like a backlog of undelivered mail that arrived at the facility last Wednesday. Regardless, he said, it doesn’t explain where her ballot went.
“I know for a fact that my mom’s mailbox is empty,” Aaronson said. “They didn’t even show up to deliver the mail.”
Other possible issues cited by union representatives: A mail carrier that used to deliver to Miami Jewish Health recently retired, so a rotating roster of carrier assistants has been handling the role, perhaps causing confusion.
A representative for the mail carriers’ union added that, strangely, Miami Jewish Health’s independent living facility and assisted living facility fall on two different carrier routes.
Whatever happened, the problem appears to have been limited to the Miami Jewish Health campus. Several people who live nearby in Little Haiti told the Herald on Friday that they haven’t experienced any recent issues with their mail service.
Voting is a challenge for elder-care residents
For Lily Aaronson, the recent mail complications plus the ongoing pandemic have made voting a tall task.
In the past, Miami-Dade elections workers would bring voting equipment to assisted living facilities and nursing homes and set up pop-up polling places, a process known as supervised voting.
But that’s not happening in this election because of COVID-19, with strict rules limiting who can come in and out of the facilities. Instead, Trutie said, elections officials delivered vote-by-mail request forms to every facility that previously participated in supervised voting, and then came back to pick up the completed forms.
The ballots themselves were mailed to assisted living facilities and nursing homes, as they were for other voters.
Before elections officials agreed to hand-deliver Lily Aaronson her replacement ballot, Geoffrey Aaronson said he considered whether to take his mother off campus to an early voting site. Under the facility’s rules, residents who leave the campus for any reason are supposed to quarantine elsewhere before they return.
“If they don’t get their [mail] ballots, it means that, essentially, they can’t vote,” he said.
Cause for concern about mail reliability?
Over the summer, several factors made it more difficult for the U.S. Postal Service to deliver mail on time. Among them, according to postal workers’ union representatives, were staffing shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the removal of mail sorting machines, and policy changes limiting overtime hours.
The internal changes coincided with the appointment in June of a new U.S. Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, and with unfounded claims by President Donald Trump about the agency’s ability to safely handle election mail.
In multiple lawsuits, federal judges have ordered the USPS to take steps to ensure as many mail ballots as possible are received on time. During a virtual hearing last week in Miami federal court, an attorney said the rate of on-time first-class mail delivery in South Florida was around 83% in early October, down from about 92% earlier in the year.
But local union officials say the situation has improved substantially since August amid pressure from the public and the courts. Perhaps most notably, 10-hour days with overtime pay are back in play, said Wanda Harris, the Miami Area President of the American Postal Workers Union.
Postal workers are used to working 10-hour days so that mail that may have taken longer to process gets delivered on time. With the overtime cuts, Harris said in August, post office trucks were “leaving mail behind” because workers needed to keep to a strict eight-hour schedule.
Since then, “everything went back to normal,” Harris said, adding that the USPS appears to have an “open checkbook” to process mail until the election.
Mark Travers, the president of the Miami branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers, agreed.
“Through the election, they’re not cutting back anything,” he said. “They initially were, but then when the uproar hit, they pivoted relatively quickly.”
In an Oct. 21 court filing, the USPS denied that overtime had ever been eliminated. “Overtime use has not been banned, nor have any caps been placed on overtime hours,” the agency said.
Across Miami-Dade County, 3% of the record number of voters who requested mail ballots for the Nov. 3 election (20,342 out of 674,527) asked for replacement ballots by Saturday’s deadline. That’s up from 2.2% in 2016.
Trutie, the deputy elections supervisor, said the department doesn’t track the reasons that people ask for new ballots, and therefore can’t determine how many requests were related to USPS delivery issues.
Herald staff writer Rob Wile contributed to this report.