Mail ballot surge places Postal Service under spotlight
The coronavirus pandemic has pushed millions of voters to request their ballots by mail, a rapid increase that is likely to change the shape of the 2020 electorate and put incredible strain on an already limited United States Postal Service (USPS).
Now, voting rights activists are raising questions about whether the Postal Service can handle the millions of ballots that will flood their processing centers in the days leading up to the presidential contest.
The risk of errors, of voters who cannot receive ballots in time or ballots that do not reach elections administrators in time, could be cataclysmic. With the White House, the Senate and the House on the line, the prospects of finding a few tubs of ballots misplaced or overlooked could throw results of close races into question, adding to President Trump’s repeated efforts in recent days to delegitimize an election that has not yet taken place.
The nightmare scenario has already played out twice this year. In a Supreme Court contest in Wisconsin in April, about 1,600 ballots were discovered the morning after Election Day in a mail processing facility in Chicago — 1,600 voters whose ballots did not count. Hundreds more who applied for absentee ballots did not receive them in time, according to a report by the state Board of Elections.
Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) have asked the Postal Service’s inspector general to investigate.
In Ohio, 317 ballots cast in the April 28 primary arrived at the Butler County Board of Elections office after a state-imposed deadline. The Postal Service blamed a mail processing error. Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) has asked for an investigation.
“We saw in both Wisconsin and Ohio that USPS was late in delivering ballots to some voters and in returning them on time to election officials,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at University of California-Irvine and author of “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy.” “Those who wait until the last minute to request and send back their absentee ballots risk disenfranchisement not through some kind of nefarious plot but through incompetence and sheer volume.”
In a statement, a Postal Service spokesman said the agency is working with local elections officials to manage the anticipated surge in absentee ballots.
“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,” the spokesman, David Partenheimer, said in an email. “As part of these outreach efforts, we will discuss our delivery processes and will consult with election officials about how they can design their mailings in a manner that comport with postal regulations, improve mailpiece visibility, and ensure efficient and cost-effective processing and delivery.”
“The U.S. Mail serves as a secure, efficient and effective means for citizens and campaigns to participate in the electoral process, and the Postal Service is committed to delivering Election Mail in a timely manner,” he said.
In the states that already conduct elections entirely by mail – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — ballots are rarely lost or misplaced. But the counts in close races can be agonizingly slow; in Washington state, then-Rep. Dave Reichert (R) did not formally know he had won reelection in 2006 for almost a week after severe flooding delayed some ballot counts.
Some of the Postal Service’s defenders say it is the only agency in the nation capable of managing the herculean task of collecting and delivering ballots in a timely fashion. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), perhaps the USPS’s biggest champion in Congress, said the Postal Service can play a new role, one that would generate a revenue stream to replace the dramatic decline in first class mail that has occurred as most Americans turn to email.
“Not only does it save state and local governments who are actually conducting the elections,” Carper said, “it actually helps the Postal Service generate a new source of revenue.”
Carper called the Postal Service an equalizer, an agency that serves rural customers as well as urban customers, touching every mailbox in America as often as six times a week.
“The post office has plenty of unused capacity right now,” he said. “Why not use that infrastructure to help people to vote?”
Part of the problem stems from the way the Postal Service now processes its mail. A letter intended to cross a street or a small city is almost certain to be routed hundreds of miles away to a centralized processing facility, where it will be sorted and sent back.
“If you’re sending a piece of mail just across the street to an election office, it’s probably going up to some larger city, it’s being driven up there and it’s being driven back,” said Michael McDonald, a voting rights expert at the University of Florida.
McDonald used Gainesville as an example: A letter he sends to a neighbor will first be routed to Jacksonville. Rural areas are especially reliant on mail sent to larger processing facilities in faraway cities.
The patchwork of state laws governing absentee ballots can be confusing to voters. In Alabama, Iowa, Louisiana, New York, North Dakota, Ohio and Utah, absentee ballots must be postmarked the day before Election Day.
Mississippi absentee ballots must already be in the hands of election administrators the day before Election Day if they are mailed in, or three days before if they are delivered in person. Florida voters must return their ballots by 7 p.m. on Election Day, likely meaning those ballots must be in the mail several days earlier.
In most other states, absentee ballots will be counted if they are postmarked on Election Day, though some states set a cutoff for when they will accept a ballot regardless of its postmark. California, a state that will vote entirely by mail this year, will reject ballots received more than three days after Election Day.
States also set different deadlines for when a voter must request an absentee ballot. Cutoffs range from Rhode Island, where voters have to request a ballot three weeks before Election Day, to Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming, where voters can request a ballot as late as the day before Election Day.
Decades of funding cuts and lost revenue have devastated the Postal Service’s budget. The agency lost $8.8 billion last fiscal year, more than double its losses from fiscal 2018.
“The Postal Service is not just running out of money, they’re like flat broke,” Carper said. “The key here is not just to put a Band-Aid or a patchwork on the Postal Service’s challenges, but to help address the underlying cause.”
— This report was updated at 7:47 a.m.