The Mail Is a Problem Again

Just in time for the election.

Utah County election workers unload ballots outside.
Mail delivery is slowing just in time for the election. George Frey/Getty Images

Tuesday is the last day that the U.S. Postal Service recommends mailing in ballots, which gives postal workers a week to deliver them by Election Day. Voter advocates, however, have already been urging people to forgo mailing and instead submit ballots at drop boxes or go in person to the polls due to reported USPS delays and recent moves by the courts that could prevent scores of votes from being counted.

On Monday, the Supreme Court issued an order effectively dictating that Wisconsin can only count mail-in ballots that have been received by Election Day. Democrats had gone to court requesting that, due to the unprecedented disruption of the coronavirus pandemic and mail slowdowns that afflicted the Postal Service since the summer, the state accept all votes postmarked on or before Election Day. This would have meant that Wisconsin could have extended its usual deadline and kept counting votes received up to six days after Nov. 3. In September, a federal judge in Madison granted the extension, but an appeals court blocked the decision earlier this month. The Supreme Court, voting 5–3 along party lines, sided with that appeals court. Similar cases in North Carolina and Pennsylvania are also awaiting decisions from the Supreme Court. Every state has its own deadline for mail-in ballots. In at least 18 states and the District of Columbia, ballots that arrive after Election Day are eligible for counting. Election officials in other states, like Louisiana, will only count ballots received by Nov. 2.

But while we eye these deadlines nervously, why are we still worrying about the mail? Wasn’t that supposed to be fixed? Didn’t the Trump ally in charge of it get hauled before Congress, publicly shamed, and then subjected to a series of court losses largely reversing the changes he had imposed on the agency that led to a backup in mail?

All of that happened—but the mail is still a problem. USPS delays might mean that hundreds of thousands of ballots might not make it in before the tight state mail-in voting deadlines upheld by the courts. Data from the agency itself shows that service is inconsistent and behind schedule. On-time delivery for First-Class service, the status assigned to mail-in ballots, is now almost as bad as it was during the worst period of USPS slowdowns over the summer, according to the think tank the Lexington Institute. Only 85.58 percent of First-Class mail made it to its destination on time in the week ending on Oct. 16, well below the internal goal of 95 percent that USPS sets for itself. That means that if 10 million ballots are mailed two days before their states’ deadlines, which is the quickest standard for First-Class service, then 1.4 million of them will not arrive on time. Critics take this as a sign that USPS did not work aggressively enough to undo cost-cutting changes implemented over the summer.

It’s unclear as of yet how this ongoing dysfunction will affect the election. If slowdowns are spread out evenly across the country, it might not matter too much. Yet recent reporting from the Washington Post suggests that these delays are having an outsize impact on several battleground states. For example, in Detroit, where Democrats are hoping to see heavy voter participation that’ll tip Michigan in their favor, only 71.5 percent of First-Class mail was on time in the week ending on Oct. 16. Letter carriers in the city told the Post that they’ve been receiving daily instructions from supervisors to prioritize packages above all else, including ballots. USPS staffing and performance has also been much better in the predominantly white suburbs and rural areas of Michigan than it has been for neighborhoods with mostly Black populations, which are also more likely to vote for Democrats. In Philadelphia, a Democratic stronghold in Pennsylvania, on-time service fell to 76.9 percent in the week ending on Oct. 16. Letter carriers in that city say that they’ve been facing shortages in staffing and have had to process ballots by hand as opposed to routing the mail through regional processing plants, where the sorting system is slower. And in the Lakeside District of Wisconsin, which makes up most of the state, only 84.3 percent of mail was on time in early October. Similar issues have been reported in Florida and North Carolina, two more critical states in the election.

Over the summer, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a major Trump donor, came under fire for ordering a series of changes to the USPS that contributed to major slowdowns, which he admitted to Congress in August. In the pursuit of cutting costs, DeJoy oversaw the banning of overtime for postal workers, the dismantling of hundreds of sorting machines, the removal of mailboxes, drastic reductions in retail hours for dozens of postal offices, and other cutbacks. (Some of these changes may have been in the works before DeJoy took office, and the pandemic surely played a part in the slowdowns as well.) USPS discontinued these cost-cutting measures in the face of public and congressional backlash but declined to reverse the changes it had already put in place; the agency initially chose not to reinstall sorting machines or mailboxes. Federal courts soon stepped in to issue injunctions forcing USPS to go further in restoring mail infrastructure. A federal judge in Washington ruled in September that new policies requiring delivery trucks to leave on time even if not all the mail for the day had arrived at the processing plant were a politically motivated attempt to disenfranchise voters. USPS subsequently informed employees that they should reconnect some processing equipment and plan to go on late or extra trips in order to ensure that all the mail is delivered. A federal judge in New York also issued an injunction late last month requiring the USPS to preapprove overtime and submit a plan restoring on-time delivery of mail in preparation for the election.

Despite these injunctions and concessions from the Postal Service, however, the agency is clearly still having problems adhering to its delivery schedules. Given the holdup and the apparent reluctance of the courts to give states wiggle room on their deadlines, campaigns and election experts are now advising voters not to mail in ballots at this point. The Biden campaign quietly altered its language to voters this week, encouraging supporters to vote in person or via a drop box. This abrupt change in messaging has caused some confusion. On Tuesday, Twitter flagged a tweet from former Attorney General Eric Holder for containing “disputed” and maybe “misleading” content after he recommended that voters use in-person methods for submitting ballots, since the platform has long treated casting doubts on mail-in voting as a form of misinformation. It’s certainly true that President Donald Trump has been claiming, without evidence, that mail-in voting will lead to fraud—a naked attempt to suppress voting. Now, however, with just a week to go and the Postal Service looking, at best, a little shaky, Holder and others likely have a point.