Mail boxes taped up near a post office during the coron​avirus outbreak in Virginia on A​pril 12. Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux

By Ryan McCarthy and Maryam Jameel
PROPUBLICA

Two weeks after the polls closed in this year’s Ohio primary, two U.S. Postal Service employees showed up in the office of Diane Noonan, the director of elections in Butler County. The workers carried a tray of 317 unopened ballots that had been sitting in a Postal Service warehouse since the day before the election.

The ballots would have counted if they had been delivered on time. Now, there was no way to legally count them. The next day, another ballot that had been postmarked in time to be counted arrived with no explanation. In Geauga County, officials found 26 such ballots; Lucas County saw 13. Many election administrators in Ohio had already lost patience with the Postal Service. During Ohio’s April 28 primary, mail delivery had been so slow that the secretary of state publicly warned voters and called for the Postal Service to add staff. As they counted votes, Noonan and her team checked in with the service every day until the deadline. “We said, ‘Listen this is the last day,’” she recalled. “‘If we get ballots after this, they’re not going to be counted.’ They assured us.”

The Postal Service’s official excuse for misplacing the Butler County ballots was an “unintentional missort.” That response satisfied neither Ohio’s secretary of state nor Noonan. “We got an explanation that really wasn’t an explanation,” Noonan said. “It’s all in their hands. That’s what’s scary.” The missing ballots in Ohio were just one sign of a larger problem. Frequently attacked by President Donald Trump and his supporters, the beleaguered Postal Service is under tremendous pressure to ensure that an unprecedented number of Americans can vote by mail in November, avoiding the potential health risk of in-person polling places during the coronavirus outbreak. The disarray Tuesday in the Georgia primary, in which voting machines malfunctioned and people waited in line for hours to cast their ballots, underscores the potential value of voting by mail.

With online retailers like Amazon cutting into its packaging revenue, the Postal Service has been losing both money and its former centrality in American culture. By running a national election smoothly, it could rebuff its critics and regain some of its prominence. But in the primaries, voters and election officials have been confronting the new reality of the Postal Service: delivery times slowed by years of budget cuts and plant closures. There have already been significant delays and mistakes in delivering ballots in Indiana, New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. The Postal Service has not hit its own goals for on-time delivery of any type of first-class mail in five years. Last year, the agency delivered only 80.88% of its three- to five-day single-piece first-class mailings on time, missing its goal by 14.37 percentage points. Performance on that type of first-class mail — which is how some absentee ballots are sent — has been declining for the better part of a decade.

“In the last five years it’s gotten really bad,” said a former Postal Service executive, who requested anonymity because he still works in the mailing industry. He added that election officials still may not know enough about how the agency operates. “There’s a huge gap in understanding of how mail is sorted and how that could affect vote by mail ballots.”

Complicating the Postal Service’s task is that many states are building large vote by mail systems on the fly. In 2018, 26 states and Washington, D.C. had vote by mail rates under 10%, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. States that don’t regularly send ballots to voters may keep inaccurate voter address lists, leaving overburdened postal workers to deliver ballots to the wrong places.

Many states have failed to adjust their ballot deadlines to accommodate slower delivery. More than half of states allow voters to request an absentee ballot seven or fewer days before an election. Though some jurisdictions let voters submit ballots in designated drop-off boxes, those who wait too long to request or mail back their ballots could see their votes arrive too late to count.

There are other deadlines that can be affected by mail delivery problems. Many states use “received by” deadlines tied to when local election offices receive a ballot. This year, as mail delays have mounted, some states have had to extend these deadlines. Other states stipulate a date by which a mail ballot must be postmarked. Controversies over missing or illegible postmarks marred Wisconsin’s primary this year, and House Democrats tried to include national standards on ballot postmarking in one of the stimulus packages.

In the general election, even mail delays in line with the Postal Service’s historical performance could affect hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of votes. According to a report from the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General, 95.6% of election mail nationally was delivered on time during the 2018 election, just below the agency’s target of 96%. But the seven lowest-performing mail processing centers that the report examined, including facilities in swing states Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, delivered an average of 84.2% of election mail on time. Six of those seven low-performing facilities failed to reassign staff to handle increased election mail volume.

To be sure, the Postal Service’s operations are still massive: Last year, the agency delivered a total of 143 billion pieces of mail. Election experts believe that the Postal Service has the capacity to handle a national election conducted primarily through the mail — but only if it coordinates closely with state election officials and if voters cooperate by sending their ballots early. A Postal Service spokeswoman said in a statement that it employs “a robust and proven process to ensure proper handling of all Election Mail, including ballots. This includes close coordination and partnerships with election officials at the local, county, and state levels. As we anticipate that many voters may choose to use the mail to participate in the upcoming elections due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are conducting and will continue to proactively conduct outreach with state and local election officials and Secretaries of State so that they can make informed decisions and educate the public about what they can expect when using the mail to vote.” She emphasized that most first-class mail “is delivered within 2-5 days, consistent with our delivery standards.” Still, the USPS acknowledges that it needs more time to deliver ballots than is contemplated in election rules. “To account for delivery standards and to allow for contingencies (e.g., weather issues or unforeseen events), voters should mail their return ballots at least 1 week prior to the due date established by state law,” the USPS warned on May 29. “If a state law requires completed ballots to be received by election officials by a specified date (such as Election Day) in order to be counted, voters should be aware of the possibility that completed ballots mailed less than a week before that date may not, in fact, arrive by the state’s deadline.”

It’s unclear how many voters follow this advice or even know about it. “Any voter who thinks that they’re going to want to vote by mail should really be putting in their application as soon as possible and not leaving it up to chance,” said Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser to the Democracy Fund and a former Arizona election official.

For years, Patrick and other experts have warned election officials about the need to adjust operations and deadlines to account for a slower, more cash-strapped Postal Service. But these changes have been spotty, and some states and counties are simply not prepared.

Patrick has called for states to modernize vote by mail systems and implement best practices like intelligent bar codes on the outside of ballot envelopes for tracking them, which the Postal Service also recommends. “I’ve been saying that same thing for five years,” she said. Eight days before Ohio’s primary, Sarita Montgomery, the Postal Service’s head of election mail for northern Ohio, sent election officials a frank warning about the state’s ballot deadlines, according to an email obtained by ProPublica. Ohio gave voters until noon on Saturday, April 25, three days before the election, to request an absentee ballot. Ballots had to be postmarked by April 27. Those rules, Montgomery suggested, meant that some voters could be disenfranchised. “There is a strong likelihood that the timing for mailing out ballots may not allow adequate time for voters to receive the ballot and return it by mail in time to meet the state’s postmark deadline,” she wrote.

The warning came as no surprise to Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials. Ockerman said his members reported “outrageous” mail delays during the primary, and his organization has been urging state officials for years to change ballot deadlines to allow for longer mail times.