Moneybox

How Much of a Mess Was USPS During the Election, Really?

What we know, what we don’t, and whether it could have affected the vote.

A box of ballots to be sorted are pictured in a U.S. Postal Service box.
About 300,000 of these went unaccounted for. Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images

Update, Nov. 6, 1:15 p.m.: USPS submitted data indicating that a sweep found hundreds of ballots that had been left behind in postal facilities in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. North Carolina will accept ballots postmarked on Election Day that are received before Nov. 12. Pennsylvania will count ballots received up to three days after Election Day.

Original article: Between a pandemic that sidelined a chunk of its workforce and a Trump-appointed postmaster general whose changes hampered its ability to deliver the mail, the United States Postal Service has had a rocky year, all the way through Election Day. And that day—when it was still delivering ballots sent by Americans expecting to have their votes counted—was even rockier than most.

The agency began Election Day by releasing new data showing poor delivery rates for ballots in the nine days leading up to Nov. 3 in key battleground states, including truly abysmal rates on the eve of the election. The data also indicated that 300,000 ballots could not be accounted for by the USPS tracking system. USPS submitted these numbers as part of a lawsuit that voter advocates had brought against the agency over its diminished service in the lead-up to the election. Upon seeing this data, a federal judge ordered USPS to have its inspectors sweep postal offices in 15 states by midafternoon for misplaced ballots. USPS refused to abide by the order.

As the results came in on election night, it became clear that as-yet-uncounted mail-in ballots would be an important factor in the close race, particularly in states where the USPS has struggled to deliver ballots on time, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Now that the dust is starting to clear, an important question is how much of a mess USPS really was in key states in the final stretch of the election. In some cases, it was clearly struggling to deliver ballots. In other areas, we don’t quite know how bad its performance was—and the reasons we don’t know are troubling, too.

Let’s start with those delivery rates. USPS said it would expedite ballots ahead of even first-class mail to accommodate the increase in voting by mail due to the pandemic. But in the final stretch of the campaign, some rates for ballots around the country looked pretty subpar. USPS submitted new data on Wednesday that includes rates for Election Day. The filing generally showed a slight improvement, but not by much, especially in postal districts that have been experiencing delays in recent weeks. The delivery rate for ballots that were on track to reach election offices on time on Nov. 3 was 82.17 percent in Atlanta, 61.26 percent in central Pennsylvania, 66.83 percent in Philadelphia, 78.86 percent in Detroit, and 84.01 percent in greater Michigan. (States vary on how late they will accept ballots postmarked on or before Election Day. Michigan, for example, stopped accepting ballots after 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.) Voter advocates say that anything below 90 percent is particularly worrying. The agency has argued that these rates only reflect the middle processing stage, not the first and last mile of a ballot’s trip, and that daily rates are much less useful that weekly or quarterly ones. Plaintiffs have countered that they are an adequate proxy for examining problem areas at this stage in the election. However we interpret them, we know the rates were still a problem when Election Day arrived.

What about those missing ballots? USPS typically tracks ballots by scanning them when they enter the agency’s processing system and then scanning them again when they leave. Postal Service data indicates that 300,000 ballots have been scanned in but not scanned out. This raised concerns among voter advocates and reporters that hundreds of thousands of ballots had been lost in processing centers. Yet, as USPS argued and Vice pointed out, the agency has been having ballots bypass those exit scans in order to deliver them faster. The trade-off is that we don’t know how many of those 300,000 ballots actually ended up being delivered, how many of them got lost in processing centers, and whether a significant portion of lost ballots came from voters in swing states. (An analysis by the Washington Post, though, suggests that the untraceable ballots won’t likely affect crucial outcomes.)

During a Wednesday court conference, the head of USPS’s 2020 election mail processing, Kevin Bray, said, “We did that intentionally so we could expedite the delivery, not to cause somebody to think it’s lost.” He also said it theoretically would be possible to determine at least how many of that batch had actually been delivered for sure, but that would take a lot of time and resources during a critical period because postal workers would have to examine 300,000 records. In other words: It’s likely we’ll never know those ballots’ fate.

In lieu of exit scans, the fail-safe measure that the USPS has been relying on to ensure that ballots aren’t lost during processing is sweeping the postal facilities, which brings us to the Election Day order from U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who is president over the lawsuit filed by voting advocates. After USPS had submitted data about those ballots that had been unaccounted for, Sullivan ordered the agency to have its inspectors do a sweep of postal facilities in problem districts like Atlanta, Philadelphia, central Pennsylvania, and Detroit by 3 p.m. on Election Day. USPS disobeyed the order and instead opted to follow the schedule it had originally planned for the day. In a court filing, postal inspector Daniel Brubaker claimed that there was not enough time to change the schedule by the time that Sullivan issued the order at 12:30 p.m. He also noted that inspectors had been instructed to walk through postal facilities from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. because the bulk of mail ballots was set to come in at 4 p.m. Plants were also continuously sweeping for missed ballots starting at 7 a.m. on Election Day. Sullivan, who hinted at a possible contempt charge, was nevertheless livid during Wednesday’s conference about the USPS’s refusal so late in the day, threatening to depose Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and noting, “I’m not pleased about this eleventh-hour development last night. … Someone may have a price to pay for that.” He subsequently issued an order to sweep facilities in Texas, where mail-in ballots had to be delivered by 5 p.m. on Wednesday. USPS complied with this order and found 815 ballots that had been misplaced in the state’s processing facilities.

So was the USPS a mess on Election Day? The available information suggests that it was still experiencing issues in close states, though we don’t have the full picture yet. The court will likely keep requesting data even after the election is called to determine what took place, including a deeper examination of ballots that were properly postmarked to make it in by a state’s deadline but came in late due to USPS delays. This was a highly abnormal election, with record numbers of mail-in ballots, but USPS will still be key—and ask for voters’ trust—in elections to come. The agency had promised this summer that election mailing would go smoothly. Clearly, it didn’t.