The tracking issues raised alarms for voters in the 28 states that will not accept votes that arrive after Election Day and drew the ire of U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who ordered the agency to conduct ballot sweeps at a dozen processing plants by early Tuesday afternoon. But the Postal Service ignored Sullivan’s deadline, saying it would stick to its own inspection timetable, which voting rights advocates worried was too late in the day for any found ballots to make it to election officials.
Meanwhile, nearly 7 percent of the ballots in Postal Service sorting facilities on Tuesday were not processed on time for submission to election officials, according to data the agency filed Wednesday in federal court, missing by a significant margin the 97 percent success rate postal and voting experts say the mail service should achieve.
Sullivan signaled Wednesday that he would require Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to give sworn testimony over the agency’s handling of election mail, which has spawned lawsuits from 19 states and civil rights groups, including the one before Sullivan, which had been filed by the NAACP and voting rights groups.
Sullivan ordered the Postal Service to conduct mandatory morning and afternoon ballot sweeps of Texas processing facilities to ensure ballots in the mail system met the Lone Star State’s submission deadline. The agency reported Wednesday afternoon that it discovered 815 ballots remaining and delivered them later in the day.
The agency told the court Wednesday that many of the 300,000 unscanned ballots were delivered before the election, though it did not provide any data or election mail logs to support that assertion. Postal officials had encouraged post offices to hand-sort ballots and deliver them directly to local election officials rather than send them to regional processing facilities where more robust tracking measures are in place.
Clerks at those plants also culled ballots in the middle of the sorting process to expedite their delivery, taking them out of plants without exit scans. The Postal Service, though, has not said how widespread that practice was or how many of the unaccounted for ballots left the mail system early.
“At this point, we don’t have any way of knowing if those ballots are of concern or if they aren’t,” said Allison Zieve, a lawyer representing the NAACP, which brought the complaint against the Postal Service with other civil rights groups. Her group has repeatedly asked the agency for supporting data.
Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer said in an emailed statement that ballots bypassed tracking steps “by design” and were “expedited directly to the boards of elections.” Agents from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the agency’s law enforcement arm, also physically inspected all plants involved in ballot processing — though those inspections were conducted later Tuesday afternoon, missing a court-imposed deadline earlier in the day.
“We will continue to accept, process and deliver ballots as they are entered into the network,” Partenheimer wrote.
In 17 postal districts in swing states that account for 151 electoral votes, more than 81,000 ballots were untraceable. But the lion’s share of the missing ballots were in states where the outcome was well in hand: In California, a decidedly blue state, the agency reported 48,120 missing ballots in Los Angeles, the most of any district, and 42,543 in San Diego. In red-state Utah, 31,616 were unaccounted for in Salt Lake City.
A Washington Post analysis of the locations of the misplaced ballots finds that even in a worst-case scenario where all potentially misplaced ballots in a state are permanently lost, those ballots amount to just a fraction of both current two-party vote margins and estimates of the number of outstanding ballots yet to be tallied.
Consider Georgia, for instance. Three Postal Service districts cover the state, and on Tuesday, the agency reported 6,624 missing ballots in those districts. That number is lower than both the Trump-Biden vote margin (roughly 83,000 votes as of Wednesday afternoon) and the projected number of ballots remaining to be counted in the state (roughly 145,000).
Moreover, not all of the 6,624 ballots are likely actually to be missing. It is probable that many of those ballots were pulled from the system by hand by Postal Service clerks on Tuesday as part of their expedited measures to ensure the timely delivery of as many ballots as possible.
Additionally, the three postal districts encompassing Georgia also cover parts of Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida. It is highly unlikely that all of the reported missing ballots are from Georgia voters.
Nevertheless, the 6,624 figure is a useful upper-end number: a kind of potential worst-case scenario. Because that theoretical maximum is well under both the current two-party margin and the number of expected ballots outstanding, it’s unlikely that misplaced mail ballots will meaningfully alter the trajectory of the election in the state.
Here’s another way to think about it: Misplaced ballots account for just a fraction of the total uncertainty around the presidential vote tally in Georgia. As of midafternoon Wednesday, there are roughly 20 times as many estimated uncounted votes in Georgia as there are misplaced ballots.
Other currently contested states show similar dynamics. There are, however, two additional factors to consider. The first is that as outstanding votes are counted, the two-party vote margins may shrink in some states. In North Carolina, for instance, Trump was leading Biden by roughly 77,000 votes as of midafternoon Wednesday. That figure is about eight times larger than the 9,155 ballots reported as misplaced in North Carolina postal districts.
However, it is estimated that there are still tens of thousands of ballots still to be counted in North Carolina, according to Washington Post projections. Depending on how they break, those ballots could shrink the two-party margin, bringing it closer to the 9,155 missing ballot tally.
The second factor is that on Wednesday morning, the Postal Service reported that close to 8,000 ballots were not processed on time on Tuesday. Depending on how those ballots are distributed among the nation’s postal districts, it is possible they could add to a district’s tally of misplaced ballots once the final processing has been completed. But again, that number is so low as to be unlikely to affect overall vote margins in any given state.
Overall, as of Wednesday afternoon, the available data provided by the U.S. Postal Service strongly suggests that misplaced mail ballots will not be a significant factor in final vote tallies — unless, of course, the final presidential vote margins shrink to low three- or four-digit numbers in the coming days.
Delivery issues have plagued the agency since DeJoy, a former logistics executive and a Republican fundraiser, took over the agency this summer. It was DeJoy’s aggressive cost-cutting regimen, according to postal experts, that created sustained slowdowns in the mail service that over one five-week span delayed more than 7 percent of the nation’s first-class mail. That sparked a public backlash and congressional hearings, and he ultimately paused his changes until after the election under court order.
Sullivan has been more aggressive than judges in Pennsylvania, New York and Washington state in his oversight of the mail system. He has ordered the Postal Service to report daily data on ballot performance scores and to provide written explanations each day for underperforming districts.
He has scheduled daily hearings — some of which have included sworn testimony from postal executives — on the agency’s performance.