Image via Shutterstock One Million Primary Ballots Were Sent Late to Voters
Image via Shutterstock

Tiffany Muller, president of Let America Vote, called the report’s findings a “five alarm fire,” and said they raised questions about whether the Postal Service was prepared to handle a surge of mail-in ballots for November’s election.

More than one million mail-in ballots were sent late to voters during the 2020 primary elections, according to a new United States Postal Service (USPS) audit. These findings have further fueled fears that the agency may not be prepared to handle the expected surge of mailed ballots ahead of November’s general election.

In an audit of the agency’s election mail processing, the USPS Inspector General (IG) found that election boards across the country sent more than one million mail-in ballots during the final week of the primary elections, putting them at “high risk” of not being returned to officials in time to be counted. 

The review, which largely shifted blame to election officials, found that:

  • Election boards in New York and Kentucky were late in sending more than 628,000 ballots to voters;
  • In 11 states, over 44,000 ballots were sent to voters the day of or day before the state’s primary election;
  • In Pennsylvania, the election board sent 500 ballots to voters the day after the election;
  • In 17 states, over 589,000 ballots were sent to voters after the state’s ballot mailing deadline. 

The audit also uncovered several potential problems for November, including ballots mailed without barcodes used for tracking; ballot envelope designs that can cause mail processing machines to return ballots to voters; and out-of-date voter addresses, which can cause mail-in ballots to be returned to election officials as undeliverable.

“Resolving these issues will require higher level partnerships and cooperation between the Postal Service and various state officials, including secretaries of state and state election boards,” the office of the agency’s inspector general said in a release. “Timely delivery of Election and Political Mail is necessary to ensure the integrity of the U.S. election process.”

Tiffany Muller, president of Let America Vote, called the report’s findings a “five alarm fire.” 

“There are now serious questions about whether it can deliver all the ballots expected during a pandemic this November,” she said in a statement. “There is no excuse for this. The agency must develop a clear, detailed plan to protect the integrity of our elections.”

The urgency of resolving these issues continues to grow as Election Day draws nearer. Twenty states and Washington, D.C., have loosened or expanded access to mail-in ballots due to fears about voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Washington Post analysis. As a result, more than 180 million people in the United States are now eligible to vote by mail, and as many as 80 million are expected to take advantage of the option come November. 

This expected increase in mail-in votes has sparked concerns that the Postal Service will be unable to guarantee ballots be delivered on time. Policy changes made under Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a longtime Republican donor and Trump ally, have also garnered criticism. DeJoy instituted a series of cost-cutting measures such as reducing service, banning overtime for carriers, and removing mail-sorting machines and public collection boxes that led to massive delays in mail delivery, sparking concerns about delays in the delivery of mail-in ballots.

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As those changes were implemented in July, the Postal Service warned 46 states and Washington, D.C., that it could not guarantee all mailed ballots would arrive in time to be counted for the election. 

Facing immense public backlash, DeJoy announced last month that he would suspend some of the changes until after the election. He has also promised elected officials that election mail will be prioritized ahead of other first-class mailings, but lawmakers, voters, and election officials still remain concerned that delays could cause many ballots to arrive after Election Day and put those votes at risk of being discarded.

USPS officials have taken some steps to try to prevent a repeat of the primaries. Agency leaders have advised election officials to send mail-in ballots at least 15 days before the election and recommended that voters return their ballots at least seven days prior to Election Day, Nov. 3. USPS is also advising election offices to send ballots as First-Class Mail, which only takes two to five days to be delivered, in order to ensure quicker delivery.

The IG’s report also issues a series of recommendations to ensure the agency does what it can to deliver ballots in a timely fashion, including ensuring mail processing facilities perform an accurate daily certification that they are clear of ballots and clearly defining roles and responsibilities with regards to oversight of election mail. 

In response to the report, David E. Williams, the Postal Service’s executive vice president in charge of operations, wrote that management “largely agrees with the audit’s findings and recommendations, and we reiterate our commitment to efficiently process the nation’s political and election mail, and to timely deliver such mail.”

But those recommendations may not be enough, according to the audit. Thirty-four states and Washington, D.C., either have no absentee ballot request deadline or have a deadline within seven days of the election, which may not provide enough time for election offices to generate ballots and for the USPS to process and deliver them to voters before the election. 

Another 14 states have deadlines—eight to 14 days before the election—that put ballots at high risk of not being delivered to voters before Election Day. Any changes to address these concerns would need to be made by individual states, some of which are working to do just that.

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While states sort out their individual deadlines, the USPS and DeJoy continue to come under scrutiny. The House Oversight Committee on Wednesday subpoenaed DeJoy over documents regarding the changes he made to USPS policies. Several state attorneys general have also filed lawsuits to block the Trump administration’s efforts to “dismantle” the Postal Service ahead of the election. 

The Postal Service’s inspector general has also opened an inquiry into DeJoy after Democrats asked for an investigation into his changes and his personal investments, which include ownership of stock in a USPS contractor and competitor.

Those legal battles are expected to play out in the coming weeks, and as Muller of Let America Vote made clear, nothing less than the fate of American democracy depends on it. 

“Over 180 million Americans are eligible to vote by mail this year and no one should have to question whether their vote will be counted,” she said.