As the country waits on a handful of swing states to decide the presidential election, all eyes are on mail-in ballots: how many are left to count and whether the U.S. Postal Service, an agency plagued by delays and controversy, delivered every ballot on time.
The facts in front of us show this: There aren’t any signs of the systemwide meltdown at the USPS that many voters and voting rights advocates feared. There isn’t any positive evidence that thousands of ballots went missing or arrived late. The USPS took extraordinary measures to make sure ballots weren’t bogged down by the delays that are afflicting mail overall, and it looks like those measures mostly worked.
All the bad news about the mail is coming from the USPS itself, and the agency has good explanations for why some reports aren’t as alarming as they appear on their face. On Tuesday, the USPS told a federal judge that it did not have delivery confirmation scans for about 300,000 ballots.
But that didn’t turn out to mean the USPS had lost or failed to deliver hundreds of thousands of ballots. U.S. District Judge Emmett Sullivan ordered emergency sweeps of processing plants, which so far have found missing ballots in the single digits.
There are open questions about whether the monthslong slowdowns in key swing states — Michigan, Pennsylvania — delayed ballots in ways we haven’t yet realized.
Here’s a more detailed breakdown of what we know:
For weeks, ballots have been moving faster than the rest of the mail.
The massive slowdowns in mail this summer were real, serious and, in some places, intractable. But as soon as the USPS began releasing specific statistics for election mail, it was clear that ballots were moving faster than other types of first-class mail.
What made the difference? Every election cycle, the USPS has a series of “extraordinary measures” it takes in order to speed up the delivery of ballots and make sure none go missing.
Voters, advocates and news outlets focused a lot on the post office this year because its role in this election was so obvious. A record number of voters planned to participate by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic, and a disproportionate share of absentee voters supported former Vice President Joe Biden.
But the fact is the USPS has been intricately involved in elections for years and it is used to getting a huge number of absentee ballots into the right hands at the very last minute. For this unprecedented election, the agency took even larger steps — in some cases, voluntarily, and in other cases, per Judge Sullivan’s orders. As I reported earlier this week:
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.
… [Other extraordinary measures] 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.
Delays in Pennsylvania and Michigan slowed ballots down.
That doesn’t mean the USPS successfully executed that plan everywhere. Both COVID-19 and long-standing staffing issues have decimated the ranks of postal carriers and processing plant staff, including in the swing states of Michigan and Pennsylvania. The USPS admits that those delays extended to ballots. Just because the agency delivered all the ballots it had on hand on Tuesday doesn’t mean many more won’t show up at processing plants on Wednesday, too late in some states to count.
But the situation isn’t as dire as it may sound. The USPS has been reporting its delivery performance to Judge Sullivan every day, and some people are taking those numbers out of context to suggest that the USPS failed to deliver thousands of ballots in swing states. This is false.
In Detroit, for example, the USPS on Election Day reported a very low service score of 78.86%. But that figure is not a measure of the total ballots delivered or the total ballots delivered in time for election officials to count them. It is a processing score — a measure of how many ballots arrived on time by USPS standards.
The score doesn’t necessarily mean anything as far as the election goes. If a Detroit voter mailed her ballot on Monday, Oct. 26, and it didn’t arrive at the board of elections until Monday, Nov. 2, that ballot is “late” by USPS standards but still perfectly valid in the eyes of election officials, which is what actually matters.
As Election Day drew closer, the processing scores became less and less relevant. That’s because ballots were no longer traveling in the normal mail stream. Since last week, postal workers have been under instructions to pull ballots out of the mail as soon as they’re flagged by the machinery and put them on a truck bound directly for the appropriate board of elections.
In some places where the post office is delivering ballots via this special arrangement, nearly 100% of ballots are arriving at election offices the same day they were mailed, a top postal official testified in federal court on Saturday. But because those ballots are not traveling with the general mail, the performance scores are not reflecting that particular feat.
All the bad news is coming from the USPS’s own reports, and it has some decent explanations.
Of course, all these feel-good explanations about the mail come from the USPS itself, in the context of defending the agency from multiple lawsuits filed by voting rights advocates. Skepticism of the institution is high, justifiably so, and there’s reason to take all of this with a grain of salt.
But all of the scariest statistics about the USPS — such as the low performance scores — are also coming from the agency. Take the 300,000 ballots with no outbound delivery scans. At the same time the USPS reported that figure, it said the lack of scans was probably due to the fact that postal workers were delivering ballots directly to election officials. As Vice’s Aaron Gordon, who has also been closely reporting on the mail, put it: “The only evidence there are 300,000 missing ballots is the USPS’s own statistics, which it has repeatedly (and, to my mind, convincingly) argued are not to be taken seriously.”
Voting rights advocates who felt extremely anxious about the USPS’s approach over the summer have mellowed out.
Here’s what Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser at the nonprofit Democracy Fund Voice, told HuffPost about the USPS in August:
“This is the first time I’ve heard this tone around election mail. ... It’s a massive shift from the overall vision of ‘the mail must go through’ to ‘the mail can wait.’ The mail can’t wait. For many voters, one day is too late.”
She was describing how top postal officials seemed blasé about their vital role in delivering democracy. Last week, when I asked Patrick how she felt about the more recent ballot data, she said she found it “reassuring.”
None of this definitively means the USPS performed the way it should have. The whole system doesn’t have to break down for there to be a catastrophe in a single district.
As Dane Coleman, the regional vice president of processing operations for the eastern U.S., testified in federal court: “We have identified a process to capture every single ballot. I don’t know if I’ll be able to certify with 100% accuracy that there were no ballots left behind.”