Postal Service report warns of bottlenecks in processing mail-in ballots

WASHINGTON — During a June 30 special election in Oklahoma, U.S. Postal Service employees in Oklahoma City were so concerned that late-arriving absentee ballots would not be counted, they searched for such ballots by hand.

Postal inspectors visiting that day found some 200 ballots sitting in two trays on the floor. These were pointed out to the postal workers, who quickly set about processing them, driving them to the appropriate county election boards themselves. It is not clear what would have happened to the ballots if the inspectors had not noticed them.

That was one of several troubling scenarios identified in a new report from the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Postal Service. That report, “Processing Readiness of Election and Political Mail During the 2020 General Elections,” found that a lack of coordination between state and postal officials could imperil voting on Nov. 3, when the president and most of Congress will be on the ballot.

A screengrab from the OIG report.
A screengrab from the U.S. Postal Service inspector general’s report.

In its analysis of both ballots and political mailings processed at seven facilities between April and June 2020, the report found that 8 percent of these election-related materials were not delivered on time.

“When mailers, states, and election boards do not follow recommended best practices to prepare, process, and track Election and Political Mail sent to voters, there is an increased risk the mail may not be delivered” in a “timely” manner, the report said. Shared responsibility among federal, state and municipal authorities only compounds that risk.

Although voting in person with appropriate precautions poses a low risk of infection from the coronavirus, fears of a still-raging pandemic could drive more Americans than ever to vote by mail if their states allow it. But President Trump’s insistent assertions that mail voting invites fraud make the subject a flash point in the election.

The White House saw the report as validating its concerns. “Even a perfect Post Office couldn’t prepare local election officials to operate the universal mail-in voting schemes Democrats are pushing mere months before a presidential election,” White House spokeswoman Sarah A. Matthews told Yahoo News. “Democrats’ attempts to drastically alter our nation’s voting system without the proper safeguards in a hurried fashion ahead of November are reckless.”

Democrats recently passed a bill in the House to provide the Postal Service with an additional $25 billion in funding. Prospects for passage in the Republican-controlled Senate are effectively nonexistent. Trump has said he is open to new funding, but hasn’t made that a priority.

The new report did not address issues of fraud, or the changes made by Louis DeJoy, the new postmaster general. A longtime Republican functionary and fundraiser for Trump, DeJoy has removed mailboxes and sorting machines, cut overtime and reduced hours at some post offices. He has denied that any of these moves were intended to make it more difficult to vote by mail, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats have called for an investigation. The inspector general acceded to that request, and the investigation into the DeJoy-initiated changes appears to be ongoing.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testifies during the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on August 24, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Pool via AP)
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy at a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Aug. 24. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Pool via AP)

DeJoy himself votes by mail. So does Trump. But the White House argues that with the widely trusted Dr. Anthony Fauci saying there was “no reason” people could not vote in person, the push to have people vote by mail is misguided.

For the new report, the inspector general conducted a survey of seven mail facilities in states that held special elections in May or June. Those facilities were in Santa Clarita, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; Baltimore; Indianapolis; Charleston, W.Va.; Brooklyn; and Oklahoma City.

“A lack of management oversight and unclear guidance,” the inspector general found, could lead to delays in processing ballots in the presidential election. That, in turn, could create confusion about the winner of the contest. The inspector general also warned of “processing delays and lower service performance” if postal workers did not follow proper guidelines for handling ballots and other election-related mail.

The report noted that on-time delivery of election and political mail dropped by 1.7 percent during the special elections conducted this summer, compared with the same period in 2018. The on-time nationwide delivery rate for election-related mailings was 94.5 percent as of late June.

According to the Washington Post, more than 8 out of 10 Americans will be eligible to vote by mail on Nov. 3. Five states have moved to all-mail voting, despite Trump’s warning. Others require voters to apply for a ballot. The secretary of state in each state decides on the specific procedures.

A USPS letter carrier works outside the Cambridge City Hall Annex at the corner of Broadway and Inman Street in Cambridge, MA on Aug. 25, 2020.  (Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A U.S. Postal Service letter carrier in Cambridge, Mass. (Lane Turner/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Those procedures, the new report found, could frustrate the Postal Service’s efforts to process ballots on time. For example, it found that in 2018, only 13 percent (4.1 million out of 31.1 million) of mail ballots used electronic bar codes.

“Without the use of barcodes,” the inspector general’s report explained, “it is extremely challenging and, in many cases not possible, to determine whether or not a ballot was sent through the Postal Service, returned by a voter, and/or if there was a delay in the Postal Service’s processes.”

Some states are simply using older envelopes because they had purchased too many of them. Others did not have money to buy newer envelopes with bar codes.

The report also found that in many states, voter addresses needed to be updated. Trump has routinely highlighted the issue. “We did not analyze the extent of this issue,” Agapi Doulaveris, a spokesperson for the inspector general’s office, told Yahoo News, “but it would be the responsibility of the states and the voters to ensure their voter registration information (including current address) is properly updated.”

Trump himself registered with the wrong address earlier this year.

The report notes that 14 states have not been using the National Change of Address database. “In addition, some states only update voter address information every two years,” the report found, “and run the risk of using outdated addresses for their registered residents who have moved within that time period.”

An additional worry is that in seven states, voters are allowed to mail their ballots up to the day before the election. Three states have no pre-Election Day deadline at all, including the swing state of New Hampshire. The report warns that voters waiting to mail their ballots until right before the election “could result in insufficient time for the Postal Service to process and deliver the mailpieces within prescribed delivery standards.”

A worker processes mail-in ballots at the Bucks County Board of Elections office prior to the primary electionon May 27, 2020 in Doylestown, Pa. (Matt Slocum/AP)
A worker processes mail-in ballots at the Bucks County Board of Elections office in Doylestown, Pa., on May 27. (Matt Slocum/AP)

In response to questions for this story, the White House highlighted that in a recent election in New York City, some 80,000 ballots were invalidated because they were mailed late or for another reason. Those results led the New York Times to suggest they could be a precursor to a potential “November Nightmare.”

The inspector general of the U.S. Postal Service is Tammy L. Whitcomb, a Trump appointee. She has been with the Postal Service since 2005. David E. Williams, chief logistics and processing operations officer at the USPS, responded at length to the inspector general’s report with a letter. While agreeing with many of the recommendations, he noted that the “ultimate responsibility” with how mail-in voting is conducted “lies with the election officials, not the Postal Service.”

Trump has generally been critical of inspectors general, who investigate the agencies to which they are appointed but serve at the pleasure of the president. Several have been fired in recent months.

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