Unchecked Polk County mailbox left ballots untouched until after runoff election

Polk County

LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – Six ballots were found inside an outgoing mailbox at The Grove in Lakeland Tuesday, residents told 8 On Your Side.

The ballots were for the May 4 special election runoff for an open Lakeland city commissioner seat.

Residents say the box had not been emptied for weeks, leaving not only ballots but bills and Mother’s Day cards inside.

“My husband happened to be over here and he was putting mail in the mailbox and he said, ‘Cyndi, there was no room. I had to really shove it in there. I don’t think they’re taking the outgoing mail,’” said Cyndi Wolfe, the treasurer of The Grove Homeowners Association.

Outgoing mailbox at The Grove in Lakeland

At the same time, Wolfe heard from resident Linda Stata, who noticed the ballots she and her husband had put in the box on April 20 were still not counted on the Polk County Supervisor of Elections website.

“I discovered they had not received it,” said Stata. “I was told that since the ballot had not been received, to go ahead and vote early at the government center which my husband and I did.”

Wolfe said she and her husband tried contacting the post office in downtown Lakeland several times.

“He asked the letter carrier to please be sure to take the outgoing mail and he got a mumble and he really didn’t understand what the guy said to him,” said Wolfe.

This week, she said she stopped a mail carrier to ask him to open the box.

“He said yes, I have the key! Well, when he tried to use the key to open the outgoing mailbox, he couldn’t get the box open. The key didn’t work,” said Wolfe.

The postal worker got permission to break open the box.

Six ballots were found inside, according to Wolfe.

Mike Musick won the special election runoff against Shandale Terrell by just 147 votes.

“If every vote that was put in that box didn’t get counted, then those people’s rights were denied by the post office,” said Wolfe.

8 On Your Side was told by employees at the downtown Lakeland post office to contact a media spokesperson for answers. Below is USPS’ response:

The Postal Service strives to always provide the best possible service to our customers and takes the security of the mail very seriously. This includes ensuring all mail receptacles, such as outgoing mail drop boxes, are secured to allow for the safe deposit of mail.  

In this particular instance, it appears we temporarily failed to collect outgoing mail in the mailroom, due to human error and mechanical issues with the box. We apologize to our customers at The Grove apartments in Lakeland for any inconvenience they may have experienced. 

Local postal management has taken immediate steps to repair the outgoing dropbox and will ensure items deposited will be collected. We remain committed to working with customers to ensure they have safe and secure mail receptacles.

David Walton – United States Postal Service, Corporate Communications

“We want our mail to be picked up every day that it’s supposed to be picked up. That’s pretty basic,” said Wolfe.

She said she has been assured a new box will be installed.

“It is an isolated incident. It’s a very unusual situation,” said Lori Edwards, the Polk County Supervisor of Elections.

Edwards said this serves as a reminder that voters have the opportunity to track their ballot.

“They can call their election office or they can go online to their election office website. Generally there will be a tab or a button that says voter lookup,” said Edwards.

If the mail-in ballot has not been counted, voters can cast their ballots in person. Whichever ballot is received first will be the one that is counted.

She says 8,281 vote-by-mail ballots were cast in Lakeland for the special election runoff May 4.

“Our post office is still very dependable. I don’t worry about it. I mail a ballot in,” said Edwards.

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