Problems caused by a spike in absentee voting during this year’s primaries are serving as potential warning signs for the U.S. Postal Service, which is bracing for an expected onslaught of mail-in ballots this fall as states and cities push alternatives to in-person voting because of the pandemic.
The concern extends to local elections offices that may be unaccustomed to aspects of the mail, such as the time it takes for parcels to reach their destinations and how to design their ballots to meet postal standards.
So the Postal Service is regularly sending advice and checklists to thousands of elections officials. Local elections offices are hiring temporary workers to process absentee ballots, and some local elections boards are adding options for voters to do curbside drop-offs of their mail ballots on Election Day.
The Postal Service is also recommending that voters request their ballots at least 15 days before Election Day and mail their completed ballots at least one week before the due date.
“Voters: We all have the power to make it better in November,” said Tammy Patrick, elections expert and senior adviser to the Democracy Fund, a bipartisan group. “Just because you can [wait until] the deadline, doesn’t mean you should.”
In a statement to The Washington Post, the Postal Service said it was working closely with state and local elections officials to head off problems in the fall.
“As we anticipate that many voters may choose to use the mail to participate in the upcoming elections due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are conducting . . . outreach with state, county and local election officials and Secretaries of State so that they can make informed decisions and educate the public about what they can expect when using the mail to vote,” the statement said.
The efforts come as elections officials are anticipating a high turnout in November as a result of the presidential election, along with a dramatic increase in voters who choose to mail their ballot instead of risking exposure to the novel coronavirus at polling places.
The expected surge in mail ballots has put a spotlight on the Postal Service, already under scrutiny because of President Trump, who has attacked it as a “joke” and made unfounded claims that mail-in voting is susceptible to widespread fraud.
The attention has been intensified by a partisan battle over a potential federal bailout of the agency and the recent appointment of a top Trump donor, Louis DeJoy, as postmaster general. DeJoy announced cost-cutting changes in a Monday memo, including slowing mail delivery.
In addition, Ronald Stroman, the deputy postmaster general widely credited with improving relationships with elections officials in recent years, resigned from his position in June — raising concerns about who will take over the role under the new postmaster general and whether that person will keep the same emphasis.
“We are concerned, because [the Postal Service] shouldn’t be political,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union. “Here’s a new postmaster general, and by the way, he just happens to be a megadonor of President Trump. Certainly, on the surface, there’s a real worry about cronyism and patronage and whether someone is being put into place to carry out an agenda. We hope that’s not the case.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Another looming concern for November is the financial status of the Postal Service, which faced significant financial troubles for decades. While the surge in package deliveries during the pandemic has boosted revenue, union officials say the uptick likely is temporary.
Congress increased the Postal Service’s borrowing authority under the coronavirus relief Cares Act, allowing it to have enough money to operate until at least May 2021, according to a June report from the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, comprising 21 offices of Inspector General. But the agency suffers from major debt, and the increased borrowing authority may lead to deeper financial concerns, according to the report.
Unions and voting rights advocates are urging the Senate to approve an emergency $25 billion to the Postal Service to make up for lost revenue related to the coronavirus.
Wendy Fields, executive director of voting rights group Democracy Initiative, said the additional funding would not only help the Postal Service, but also thousands of elections officials who rely on the agency: “This is about an investment in the entire election process.”
The goal is to avoid messes like the ones that unfolded earlier this year in multiple states.
The day after the primary election in Wisconsin, postal workers at a processing center found about 1,600 ballots that were never delivered to the communities around Appleton and Oshkosh, according to a Wisconsin Elections Commission report on absentee voting in the April primary.
“The enormous volume of absentee requests for the April 2020 election magnified the effect of typically small concerns that ordinarily presented minor issues,” according to the report.
In Fox Point near Milwaukee, some ballots that were mailed out through the Postal Service were returned to village officials without any explanation — rather than being delivered to voters. Village officials said it is unclear how many voters were affected by the mail problems.
The Postal Service’s internal investigation into the Wisconsin problems found that the agency generally followed its procedures but needed to improve communication and coordination with local election officials.
Since then, Fox Point officials and the Postal Service have been working to avoid running into the same problems for the November election, when they anticipate more voters will opt to vote by mail, said Scott Botcher, village manager. Residents were calling as early as mid-June to confirm they had received their ballots for an upcoming Aug. 11 election, he said.
“A lady called and said, ‘Holy smokes, I already got my ballot, thanks a lot.’ Everyone knows that last time, we had issues,” Botcher said.
Wisconsin is among the states that are adopting intelligent mail bar codes for the November election, to avoid mail-tracking problems that several counties faced in the spring. Such bar codes allow both voters and election officials to track ballots in real time while en route. This system is costly, but it would alleviate the workload on county clerks fielding multiple calls from voters asking about the status of their ballots, officials said.
In Ohio, state officials shuttered most polling locations for the primaries because of the pandemic and extended mailing deadlines to give voters until the Saturday before election Tuesday to request their mail ballots.
That meant ballots had to travel to the voters and back in a matter of two business days. Yet some took up to nine days and were not returned in time to be counted, according to the secretary of state. In one county, more than 300 delayed ballots were not counted, and advocates say the number likely is greater across the state’s 88 counties.
In a new report, the Postal Service raised concerns about states’ new ballot deadlines that do not comport with postal guidelines and warned of potential delays nationwide for the general election if those deadlines are not changed.
Whether ballots are submitted in time for counting depends on several factors, including differences in delivery times for First Class Mail, which is more expedited and takes two to five days, compared to standard marketing mail, which could take up to 10 days to deliver.
Ahead of the Texas elections this week, some voters in Dallas who had mailed out their votes to the county were inexplicably receiving their ballots back in the mail just days before the election.
The Postal Service said in a statement that the ballots were returned because of an issue with the way the return envelopes were printed — highlighting the variety of complex challenges that may lie ahead for local and state officials.