Overlapping federal court orders in New York, Pennsylvania, Montana, Washington state and the District of Columbia blocked Postal Service officials from pursuing a cost-cutting agenda that delayed much of the nation’s mail over the summer. But those orders — and extraordinary steps from within the agency — have not restored service levels, leaving voters to navigate the unprecedented diversity of options for casting their votes.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign internally switched its language to voters this week, encouraging them to submit ballots in person or at a secure drop box, according to campaign officials, rather than through the mail.
Even the controversial postcard the Postal Service sent to every American household in September advised voters to “mail your ballot at least 7 days before Election Day.”
“If you haven’t requested a mail ballot yet, it’s too late,” said David Becker, executive director at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research. “I don’t care about the legal deadline; it’s just too late in terms of getting it processed, getting it mailed to you and you being able to fill it out and return it. You’re just putting too much pressure on yourself. At this point, if you haven’t requested a mail ballot yet, plan to vote in person and vote early, if possible."
Voters who requested but have yet to receive a mail ballot should vote in person, Becker said. They may be required to fill out a provisional ballot, but it will count as long as they do not also submit a mailed ballot. Voters who have received their mail ballot but have not turned it in yet should do so in person or at a ballot drop box.
In an emailed statement, Postal Service chief retail and delivery officer Kristin Seaver said advancing election mail, including ballots, was the agency’s “number one priority now through the election.”
The Postal Service has processed 523 million pieces of election mail, a historic volume of ballots, ballot applications, voter information pamphlets and other items. That’s 62 percent higher than the 323 million pieces moved during the 2016 election cycle, according to the agency.
According to the U.S. Elections Project, 66.5 million Americans have already voted, including 23.9 million via absentee ballots, though many of those were returned in person rather than through the mail.
The agency’s ballot processing is dramatically better than its service for other types of mail. It delivered 96.7 percent of outgoing ballots on time during the week of Oct. 16, according to data it filed in federal court. It delivered 95.6 percent of completed ballots to election officials.
But those figures, some critics say, do not fully depict the Postal Service’s ballot-handling performance. Those rates apply only to mail the Postal Service was able to identify as ballots.
Every day, processing facilities are mandated by court order to conduct “all clear” checks, or sweeps of sorting plants to detect misplaced election mail. But in 10 percent of the reports, the Postal Service either found ballots that should have been processed, failed to complete the check or did not report the results.
“What I see in this data is not anything that contradicts each other,” said J. Remy Green, an attorney who represents a group of voters in a lawsuit against the Postal Service in federal court in the Southern District of New York. “What it suggests to me is that when they can identify ballots, they’re doing a good job, but when they’re not catching ballots, there are ballots sitting in the slowest part of the system, and that remains troubling.”
The volume of ballots in the mail system has rewritten parts of the campaign playbooks for both President Trump and Biden in the waning days of the presidential race. Trump spokeswoman Thea McDonald cited the campaign’s 2.5 million volunteers as part of a get-out-the-vote push that is the “biggest in history.” She called the Biden team’s push “nonexistent” and said the former vice president had “no infrastructure in key states to remind [supporters] to mail in their ballots.”
Biden National States Director Jenn Ridder said the campaign was largely able to track voters who requested absentee ballots and target follow-up digital and mailed information on how to vote.
“It changed our get-out-the-vote period from four days to four weeks,” she said. “That means we get to have so many more substantial conversations with voters about how to vote. And it means we get to go talk to voters, as we cross them off our list, we get to talk to low-propensity voters, younger voters that we might not get to otherwise. I think it provides a really great opportunity and a big opportunity for the campaign to push people to vote.”
Postal Service executives instructed employees to take “extraordinary measures” between Oct. 26 and Nov. 24 to accelerate ballot deliveries, according to a memo circulated to supervisors last week and obtained by The Washington Post. Retail offices may create ballot-only lines at customer service windows and drive-through ballot drop-off areas, stated the memo from Seaver and chief logistics and processing operations officer David E. Williams. Employees are authorized to sort and postmark ballots at local post offices rather than sending them to regional processing plants, the memo states. Letter carriers are instructed to visit every delivery destination on Oct. 29, 30 and 31 — even if they have no items to deliver — to check for mail.
“The next two weeks are extremely important, and we must work together to put a relentless focus on Election Mail, especially the volume of completed ballots going from voters to their respective offices,” the memo states.
But mail service in many electorally significant areas continues to lag even with those measures in place, along with additional overtime hours and extra dispatch and delivery trips, both mechanisms imposed by court order.
In the Detroit postal district, which includes most of eastern Michigan, 71.5 percent of first-class mail was delivered on time during the week of Oct. 16. In the Greensboro district in North Carolina, 79.4 percent was on time. In Pennsylvania, mail service varies by several percent across the state’s three postal districts. In the Philadelphia Metro area, 76.9 percent was on time; in central Pennsylvania, 79.6 was on time; in western Pennsylvania, 87.3 percent was on time.
In Baltimore, mail was delivered on time 65.5 percent of the time.
The Postal Service did not disclose election mail performance by district.
“Really for the good of democracy and for the good of customer service, people ought to know where those areas are,” said Paul Steidler, a postal expert at the conservative Lexington Institute think tank. “If you’re in an especially problematic area and you’re trying to figure out whether or not you should mail your ballot, you ought to have that knowledge.”
After voters and attorneys general from 19 states won courtroom victories this summer to force the Postal Service to abandon cost-cutting maneuvers and restore service cuts, judges have been reluctant in the run-up to the election to impose more requirements to boost delivery performance. Judges in New York, Pennsylvania and D.C. have all declined to appoint an independent monitor over the Postal Service to enforce court orders.
The Postal Service in late September appeared close to an agreement to settle its legal fights out of court, but those talks stalled over requirements for overtime hours, according to three sources familiar with negotiations. Without a deal, the legal teams suing the agency in each case have largely divided their attention over different metrics.
A person familiar with the case in Washington state said the legal strategy leading up to the election had turned to closely focus on election mail issues rather than overall mail performance. Attorneys in New York and Pennsylvania have pursued first-class mail service improvements.
“Our case goes beyond election mail,” said one person involved in the Pennsylvania case. “Election mail is a key part of why we brought this suit and is obviously very important for the next month, but we also care about regular mail, which is paychecks and prescription medications and all the other things we need the mail for.”