I get mail once a year. I don’t think I should spend $77 to receive a Thanksgiving card from my grandmother. I know for a fact that many other students feel the same way. For some, this is a choice. Others simply cannot afford to pay for a P.O. Box. But when the one piece of mail you get is an absentee ballot, Yale’s supposed insistence on P.O. boxes might have effectively disenfranchised students who cannot afford to pay the yearly fee –– not only for this election cycle, but for past election cycles, too.
Normally, Timothy Dwight College aide shifts consist of answering emails and trying to sound official on the phone. But Tuesday afternoon proved a different story. On that day, I had to turn away four exasperated students who were looking for their absentee ballot that they had requested more than a month ago. After doing a bit of digging, I learned some shocking information. It turns out, the reason that many TD students had not been getting their absentee ballots was not due to some external cause like mail delays or late requests, but because internally, Campus Mail Service had been deliberately sending back the ballots of students who did not have P.O. boxes.
Surprised? You should be. That’s because before Oct. 22, Campus Mail Service had also been failing to inform anyone that they had been doing so.
Karen McGovern, assistant to TD head of college, was the first to figure out what was happening. “I was getting ticked off that students weren’t getting their ballots, so I called Campus Mail to ask why, and the manager told me, ‘If they don’t have their P.O. Box, we return to sender. Simple as that.’ I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
McGovern reached out to KC Mills, TD’s operations manager, who quickly sent out an email to all heads of colleges. On Tuesday, the Services Committee — which consists of several heads of college, deans and operations managers — met to discuss solutions to the situation. By Wednesday, absentee ballots were being redirected back to colleges through a “special service” headed by Don Relihan, the director of support services at Yale, for this one exception.
Evidently, the workers at Campus Mail Service had simply been following Yale’s postal service policy, which clearly states on their website that all packages addressed to colleges or dorms would be sent back. Normally, this policy would not be a big issue: student mail is not exactly in high demand, the Yale Student Receiving Center is always an alternative and it is common practice for first-year counselors to tell their first years that they can usually get away with addressing their mail to their colleges anyway. That said, absentee ballots apparently fall outside the scope of any of these options.
McGovern explained to me that the same situation happened two years ago: “I did the same thing during the presidential election. I called to complain that students were not getting their absentee ballots, and yet the manager was very adamant that they could not send mail to the colleges. Nothing got done.”
At that time, not every college was even aware that this was happening. According to Mills, some colleges had prepared for ballot returns by allowing students to use the Head of College P.O. Box, but others had absolutely no idea that their students were still waiting for mail.
The irony in all of this is that upon further investigation, this whole fiasco unfolded due to a USPS rule that might not even exist. Yale claims on their website that “all students are required by U.S. postal services to have a U.S. Post Office box.” But when I read through the USPS website, I could not find any mandate for student P.O. boxes. Instead, I discovered that USPS actually states that mail can be delivered to dormitories, as long as the campus provides a sorting framework. This means that Yale’s requirement for us to pay $77 in the first place might be outdated and completely unnecessary. Hoping for more clarification, I reached out to several Yale administrators. I have yet to receive an explanation.
What are the takeaways from this?
First, if you haven’t received your absentee ballot, request another one immediately. Considering the fact that Yale has not sent out a schoolwide email informing us of the situation, here is your impetus to do so.
Second, I am not entirely satisfied with Yale’s plan to ameliorate the situation. For now, I am pleased that they acted quickly to get absentee ballots to students. But this “one-time exception” rule is only a bandage to the larger discussion of why students should have to pay for their mail in the first place, especially considering that Yale’s rule does not seem to have any grounding in USPS regulations.
Perhaps this situation might encourage Yale to look critically at how their mail system might be just another small facet in the larger scope of policies and traditions at this university that assume students can afford additional amenities.
While some of these are either student-imposed — like hefty club dues — or difficult to solve — like a meal swipe system that doesn’t allow weekly turnover — in this case, it is a completely fixable situation. Many colleges, including Harvard, provide free mail services for their students. Granted, I am not familiar with the intricacies of mail distribution (thank God), but I question why the extra step of delivering mail from Campus Mail Service to colleges is really such a deterrent when other college mail already travels to those destinations. I am looking for a clear-cut reason as to why Yale must insist on P.O. boxes, and I am struggling to find it.
With all this in mind, let’s hope that by the 2020 elections, Yale will not be scrambling to answer for the same oversight it has ignored in the past. If Yale continues to claim that it fosters active citizens, it needs to facilitate a space where voting is transparent and easy, not opaque and difficult.
Elizabeth Dolan is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .