COVID-19 cases and “employee unavailability” are behind the significant slowdowns in ballot delivery happening in parts of Michigan and Pennsylvania, the U.S. Postal Service told a federal court this weekend.
Agency data shows that a significant share of absentee ballots in Detroit, greater Michigan, and central Pennsylvania — all regions that could play a crucial role in deciding the presidential election — are not arriving within an “on time” window of about two days. On Saturday in the greater Michigan district, the percentage of ballots delivered on time was 69.1%. It was 78% in the Detroit district, and 56.6% in central Pennsylvania.
Hundreds of USPS employees in Detroit facilities have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. A “disproportionate” number of postal workers in Detroit are still contracting the coronavirus or missing work for family obligations or because family members have the virus, a postal official testified Saturday. The same is true for facilities in central Pennsylvania.
“We’re reacting to it, making the necessary adjustments,” Dane Coleman, the regional vice president of processing operations for the eastern U.S., said. Plants in central Pennsylvania and Detroit are sending some of their non-election mail to other facilities for sorting help, and the agency is reassigning nearby employees to cover staffing shortfalls, Coleman said. “But we do know and acknowledge that we’ve had some impacts because of that,” he added.
If too many absentee ballots arrive late to election officials, it could easily tip the outcome of the race. Supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden are far more likely than supporters of President Donald Trump to have relied on the mail to cast their votes.
Note: If you have not voted by this point, you should drop off your absentee ballot at an authorized location instead of relying on the mail, or you should plan to vote in person.
USPS officials testified Saturday that every postal district is using all the tools at its disposal to deliver voters’ completed ballots to election officials in time to be counted. The judge for the case, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, ordered the agency on Sunday to remind senior managers that these measures are mandatory.
But time is running out for ballots to be delivered. Michigan will not count mail-in ballots that arrive after 8 p.m. on Election Day. Pennsylvania will not count ballots that are postmarked after Election Day, and ballots must arrive by 5 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 6, although Republicans are battling for the courts to invalidate those ballots as well.
Biden is counting on substantial support from Detroit in order to carry Michigan, with absentee ballots projected to drive up his margins in the city anywhere from 9% to 26%. More than half the people of color in Wayne County, most of whom are Black, say they planned to vote by mail, meaning delays around Detroit would leave Black voters disproportionately disenfranchised.
The situation became even worse earlier this year when delivery rates for mail plunged in many parts of the country because of COVID-19 and changes implemented by Trump’s handpicked postmaster general, Louis DeJoy.
Federal courts ordered DeJoy to reverse those changes, but recent court filings show things aren’t back to normal. For example, measures DeJoy implemented to reduce the number of mail trucks making late and extra trips still appear to be having an effect. Until mid-July, postal trucks made roughly 1,900-2,400 extra trips and 3,000 to 5,000 late trips per day, compared to about 500-700 extra trips and 2,000 late trips per day in early October. Instead of following a court order to reverse DeJoy’s changes, court records show, the USPS was quibbling as recently as Oct. 15 over whether it was accurate to say late and extra trips were “banned” outright.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to certify with 100% accuracy that there were no ballots left behind.”
“We have deployed everything,” said Michael Barber, the agency’s vice president of processing and maintenance operation.
“At this point, it’s all about execution of the processes and the extraordinary measures that we have in place,” Coleman said. “That’s the key.”
The data is not a perfect snapshot of how fast the USPS is delivering ballots. That was the agency’s main explanation for the low on-time service scores it reported in North Carolina. On Saturday in the mid-Carolinas, which includes Charlotte, 76.45% of inbound ballots arrived on time, and in Greensboro, 78.26% arrived on time.
The main thing the data fails to capture, Barber testified, is the local arrangements many districts have made to deliver ballots directly to the board of elections. As soon as a piece of sorting equipment identifies a ballot, postal workers take that ballot out of the processing stream to be delivered directly to election officials.
That is one of several extraordinary measures the agency is taking to deliver ballots as quickly as possible. Others include maximizing overtime, reassigning any employees who aren’t scheduled to perform another core part of their job to election duty, and upgrading any ballots being mailed out of state to express mail. Sorting facilities are conducting multiple sweeps per day, meaning someone physically goes and checks every point in the sorting process that ballots might have gotten left behind. The USPS Office of Inspector General is inside plants observing all of this.
The agency has even tried hiring more staff, although Barber acknowledged that it hasn’t made up for staffing shortfalls: “There is a learning curve.”
“We have identified a process to capture every single ballot,” Coleman testified. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to certify with 100% accuracy that there were no ballots left behind.”
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