Moneybox

There’s Some Troubling New Data About Slowdowns in Election Mail

At first Pennsylvania looked bad. Now Michigan looks worse.

An election worker carries mail-in ballots in U.S. Postal Service containers.
It’s not as bad as it first seemed in Pennsylvania—but there are big issues in Michigan. George Frey/AFP via Getty Images

On Wednesday, the U.S. Postal Service filed some alarming delivery statistics in federal court. The data indicated that the percentage of first-class mail, which includes election ballots, that was delivered on time was only 86.17 percent on Saturday, 88.56 percent on Monday, and 69.81 percent on Tuesday. All these rates are far below the 95 percent on-time delivery goal that USPS sets for itself. Even more concerning, the data showed that delays were particularly acute in battleground states like Wisconsin, Florida, and Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia, a Democratic stronghold for Pennsylvania, rates dropped to 58.35 percent Saturday, 61.18 percent on Monday, and 42.95 percent on Tuesday. (USPS produced the data because of a lawsuit brought against the agency by voting rights groups like Vote Forward and the NAACP.)

Those numbers caused something of an uproar Wednesday as they bounced around Twitter—especially with the election just days away and after the USPS supposedly fixed delivery issues that had arisen after the Trump ally leading the agency implemented operational changes this summer. “It is an alarming and disturbing number,” Lexington Institute senior fellow Paul Steidler said of the Philadelphia statistics. “These delivery times are more akin to those of a second-world nation than the U.S. Postal Service.” In another court filing, USPS lawyers argued that the data was not a reliable indicator of performance, because daily statistics are not as helpful as weekly ones, and because it only accounts for the middle processing stage. (A more complete statistic would include the first mile, the processing stage, and the last mile.) Nevertheless, USPS has promised to make “extraordinary” efforts to get ballots delivered on time, and even these partial statistics raised alarms. “This is the first time we’ve seen what a Tuesday looks like under the extraordinary efforts orders [issued by the courts to expedite election mail],” said J. Remy Green, the lawyer for plaintiffs in another lawsuit against USPS in New York. “And if that’s what a Tuesday looks like under the ordinary efforts orders, come next Tuesday, we’re in trouble.”

Is it time to panic over USPS’s performance in a crucial swing state where mail-in votes could play an important role? No—but there’s a big hitch.

On Thursday, USPS released more data, this time specifically for election mail. From that set, it appears that Philly is holding up relatively well. But there are stark problems with election mail in other parts of the country, including in Michigan.

First, here’s what’s going on in Philadelphia: The city has been having issues with the mail since the summer, so much so that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy highlighted Philly as a problem area during his appearance before Congress in August to explain cost-cutting measures that ended up degrading USPS services. At the time, he attributed the city’s delays to turnover as a result of the coronavirus. He said, “Employee availability average has dropped across the nation about 4 percent, but when you can go into some of these what I would say hot spots—Philadelphia, Detroit—they’re as much as 20 to 25 percent. Philadelphia has 750 routes and we have days where we’re short 200 carriers and this can go on for a while.” An official with one of the major postal unions similarly told Slate that Philadelphia’s current slowdowns are due to those ongoing coronavirus outages: “There’s been significant COVID issues and absences in Philadelphia for some time and subsequent service issues. We are communicating with USPS headquarters daily and our election task force has put many extraordinary measures in place there to handle election mail.” Pennsylvania is currently averaging a record 2,000 new cases per day.

While the coronavirus is likely playing a significant role, it’s not clear that the pandemic is wholly responsible for the sluggishness Philadelphia is seeing now. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in early October that even though federal judges had blocked USPS changes that would slow service, higher-ups were still telling workers to dispatch trucks even if all the mail hadn’t arrived at the facility and to put limits on the running time for sorting machines. Mail carriers told the Washington Post last week that chronic staffing issues are indeed to blame for delays but that workers were also preparing to cull and process ballots by hand in order to avoid sending them to slower regional processing plants.

There’s an indication, at least, that these issues aren’t greatly affecting election activities. While ballots are a subset of first-class mail, USPS is currently trying to deliver them at faster rates compared with other pieces of mail in that category. The set of data released Thursday as part of the lawsuit indicates that the on-time delivery rate for inbound ballots—that is, filled-out ballots en route from voters to election offices—was 91.57 percent on Saturday, 93.03 percent on Monday, 96.21 percent on Tuesday, and 96.77 percent on Wednesday. Nationally, inbound rates ranged from 93.39 percent to 97.13 percent in that time frame.

These ballot statistics are incomplete because they only cover the processing stage. Also, the data only applies to the subset of ballots that have easily identifiable bar codes affixed to them. “When reviewing election mail/ballot statistics, it is important to keep in mind that only about 70 percent of this mail has intelligent mail barcodes and related service codes,” said Steidler. “Other election mail is likely to have the same delivery time constraints as first-class in general.” Those caveats are important. But based on the incomplete data we have, it doesn’t appear Philadelphia is doing worse with election mail than the nation overall.

But other places are. On-time rates for inbound ballots in Detroit, crucial for deciding Michigan, ranged from 56.92 percent to 84.24 percent in that same four-day time frame. In the service area that covers Colorado and Wyoming, rates ranged from 62.58 percent to 81.66 percent. And in Kentuckiana, the area on the border of Kentucky and Indiana, rates ranged from 38.20 percent to 75.14 percent. Rates for outbound ballots—that is, blank ballots sent from election offices to voters—are even worse, though USPS argued in its filing that there aren’t very many going out at this point in the election, so even small fluctuations can have an outsize impact on the statistics. Even so, outbound rates in Baltimore, as an example, fell steadily from 96.87 percent to 0.67 percent over this period. Plaintiffs in this case have argued that, at the end of the day, anything below 90 percent is unacceptable for ballots.

D.C. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who is presiding over this case, closed Thursday’s hearing by saying, “The court’s hat is off to the men and women who are responsible for the day-to-day processing and delivery. They didn’t create the problems in this case. Those at the top of the employment ladder, the supervisors and DeJoy, created the problems.” Based on the data, those problems seem very real—and with the election nearing, there’s precious little time to fix them.

Think You Know More About the Trump White House Than Mike Pesca? Find Out With a Special News Quiz.

From now until Election Day, we’re offering a series of quizzes to test your political knowledge. Questions are multiple-choice, and time is of the essence: answer more quickly for more points. Check out all of our Slate News Quizzes here.