Those delays loom large over the election: 28 states will not accept ballots that arrive after Election Day, even if they are postmarked before. Continued snags in the mail system could invalidate tens of thousands of ballots across the country and could factor into whether President Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden captures crucial battleground states and, ultimately, the White House.
In Michigan, for example, the Detroit postal district — which includes some of the state’s largest concentrations of Black voters, who are crucial to Biden’s campaign — had delivered only 72.8 percent of ballots on time over the past five days, according to Postal Service data filed in U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia. In the Greater Michigan district, which represents the rest of the state, 84.3 percent of ballots arrived to election officials on time.
In North Carolina, 84.7 percent of ballots in the Greensboro district and 85.1 percent in the Mid-Carolinas district have been delivered on time in the past five days.
In all, 12 of the 17 mailing districts recorded on-time ballot delivery rates below 95 percent, and seven came in under 90 percent.
Voting rights advocates say that even the five districts with on-time scores between 90 and 95 percent — the Gulf Atlantic district in northern Florida and most of Georgia; Northern Ohio; Northland, which includes most of Minnesota; Philadelphia Metro; and South Florida — are underperforming. The Postal Service’s data accounts only for mail pieces the agency successfully identified as ballots and does not include “first mile” and “last mile” handling steps, which add time to delivery. Advocates and postal experts say the agency, under normal circumstances, should have an on-time score of 97 percent for ballots.
Even as ballot on-time rates outpace those for all other first-class mail, the Postal Service continues to struggle with timely delivery. The issue is less about volume — ballots represent a slim portion of all first-class mail items being handled — than it is about the agency’s underlying operational challenges, such as chronic staffing shortages, decreased processing capacity and communication bottlenecks.
“This is a disgrace,” said S. David Fineman, a former chair of the Postal Service’s governing board. “Here’s the bottom line: They knew that they had an obligation to deliver election mail on time. They’ve been told that both publicly in congressional hearings and four federal judges have told them that. One can’t understand how they could not have these facilities fully staffed so that election mail could be delivered on time. It’s beyond my belief that there’s a reason that something like this could happen.”
And among ballots nationwide, 2 percent are arriving at least three days late, or six days after the item reached the Postal Service’s processing facility, the agency reported Friday.
In the Kentuckiana district, covering most of Kentucky, roughly 20 percent of ballots, on average, were delivered to election offices more than three days late from Oct. 24 to Oct. 29. In the neighboring Appalachian district, the share was 14 percent.
Those areas were the exception in terms of very late ballots. In 29 of the Postal Service’s 67 districts, fewer than 1 percent of ballots were more than three days late during the period covered by the data. In 32 other districts, the rate was from 1 to 5 percent, and in four additional districts the rate was from 5 to 10 percent.
The 17 battleground postal districts outperformed the national average: Only 1.5 percent of those ballots in the past five days were more than three days late, according to the data. More than 4.5 percent were more than three days late in the Lakeland district, which includes most of Wisconsin, 3 percent in the Mid-Carolinas district and 2.6 percent in Greensboro.
The Postal Service reported Thursday that it had processed 4.5 billion pieces of political mail, such as campaign advertisements, and official election mail, which includes voter registration information, ballot applications and 122 million ballots.
More than 52 million Americans have voted using absentee ballots, according to the United States Elections Project, and more than 37 million mail ballots remain outstanding. Experts are encouraged by high ballot return rates in swing states that could soften the impact of mail delays. In Michigan, 77 percent of absentee ballots have been returned. In Wisconsin, 83.9 percent have been returned, and in North Carolina, 60.8 percent.
Earlier this week, the Biden campaign switched its language to voters, encouraging them to submit ballots in person or at a secure drop box, according to campaign officials, rather than through the mail.
The election mail volume has led the Postal Service to redirect resources to ballot collection, processing and delivery, the agency said. The first-class-mail on-time delivery rate dropped to 80.9 percent the week of Oct. 23. Postal leaders have mobilized extra resources, as mandated by multiple federal court orders, and diverted resources from non-election first-class mail processing to handle the influx of ballots.
“While our ongoing commitment is to maintain the highest level of service performance for all mail, we acknowledge that our full focus and prioritization on election ballots is having a near-term impact on the overall on-time performance of other products throughout the network,” Postal Service chief retail and delivery officer Kristin Seaver said in a statement. ” … In the final push through the election, our entire team remains laser focused on advancing ballots to local boards and election officials as quickly as possible.”
Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in the U.S. District Court in D.C. on Friday ordered the Postal Service to provide a written explanation for each district that delivered fewer than 80 percent of ballots on time each day, or fewer than 90 percent of ballots on time for two days in the same week.
Justice Department lawyers representing the Postal Service cited staffing issues and increased package and paper mail volumes for the ballot mail slowdowns.
In the Detroit processing facility, employee availability was only 78.2 percent, the agency reported. In the Central Pennsylvania facility, it was only 84.4 percent.
“At the same time that staffing unavailability has become a factor, there has been an increase volume in package and market dominant products,” Justice Department attorney John Robinson wrote in a legal filing. Each of these factors has had an impact on local service in the affected Districts."
Robinson cautioned that the mail agency does not consider daily data reliable. Volumes of election mail in individual districts are sometimes too small for the Postal Service to consider the data statistically significant, Robinson wrote, though the agency did not report volume data.
The Postal Service has instructed post offices to cull ballots locally and transport them directly to election officials, rather than sending them for processing at regional sorting facilities. Those ballots are not included in performance scores, though the Postal Service was unable to say how widespread post offices are following that practice.
The nation’s mail service has been under intense scrutiny after a tumultuous summer in which new postmaster general Louis DeJoy, a major Trump financier and former supply-chain logistics executive, implemented a major restructuring and cost-cutting agenda. DeJoy called off some of the measures in August, but in the five weeks the orders were in effect, service nosedived. More than 7 percent of the nation’s first-class mail was delayed, according an analysis by the office of Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.).
DeJoy had implemented a stricter transportation schedule to crack down on late and extra dispatch and delivery trips, mechanisms crucial to timely service. The agency also sought to cut 64 million work hours, or nearly 2½ weeks’ worth of work, based on weekly payroll summaries filed to the Postal Regulatory Commission.
The delays sparked a flurry of lawsuits amid concerns they could undermine an election in which an estimated 198 million Americans were eligible to vote by mail. Federal courts in New York, Pennsylvania, Washington state and D.C. blocked DeJoy from pursuing those changes and ordered the Postal Service to take extraordinary measures to restore service and delivery ballot mail.
Chief Judge Stanley A. Bastian of Washington state’s Eastern District ordered the agency to reconnect high-speed mail-sorting machines, more than 700 of which were mothballed over the summer. Many of those machines were disassembled or used for scrap, but for the ones that remained serviceable, Bastian commanded DeJoy to allow local managers to decide whether to reinstall them.