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June 17, 2020; ProPublica

On Election Day—November 3, 2020—more than 150 million Americans will be eligible to set our nation’s direction. A new president will be elected. Every seat in the US House of Representatives and 35 in the US Senate will be filled. Choices will also be made about the shape of state and local governments.

Writing for NPQ this spring, Carole Levine worried that the openness and fairness of these elections was at risk. “The right to vote is one that’s often held up as sacred; today, it’s become a partisan political football.”

On top of the ongoing concerns about voter suppression that have roiled our democracy for years, this election would have to contend with a raging pandemic, adding danger to the way most voters cast ballots.

The answer to this health risk, as described by the Brennan Center, is a mail-ballot option to “minimize voters’ exposure to COVID-19 and reduce lines and crowds at the polls. Options for requesting, receiving, and returning mail ballots should be expanded while maintaining the security of the voting system.”

However, looking at the results of recent primary elections, the Achilles heel of voting by mail may not be political opposition from the president or Republican legislators, but a struggling US Postal Service that, unfortunately, has been wounded by market forces and serious underfunding.

ProPublica’s analysis found “significant delays and mistakes in delivering ballots in Indiana, New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC.” Voters didn’t receive their absentee ballots, and election officials didn’t get those ballots back in time to be included in the official vote counts, even if appropriately postmarked. According to Marion County Clerk Myla Eldridge in Indiana, the inability of the USPS to deliver every ballot meant thousands would remain uncounted despite “the best efforts of both the Marion County Election Board and the voters themselves—even while state and county officials have strongly encouraged voters to vote by mail.”

A struggling USPS is not news. Earlier this year, the Postmaster General appealed to Congress for an emergency infusion of new funds. This money was to keep the struggling system going, not cure serious problems, like the ones that the mayor of Belleville, New Jersey, Michael Melham, calls “systemic.”

“I do think that they’re overwhelmed,” Melham says. “I don’t think they’re capable any more of simply delivering mail. I just don’t think that they can do it.”

The state of New Jersey has a history of relying on mail-in voting, and national data suggest that the mayor is correct to distrust the service:

  • “The Postal Service has not hit its own goals for on-time delivery of any type of first-class mail in five years…”
  • “Mail delays in line with the Postal Service’s historical performance could affect hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of votes…”
  • “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 percent of election mail on time.”

In a close election, if the Post Office is unable to do much better, the results run a good chance of not reflecting the will of the people. That means it’s necessary to ensure the USPS is properly funded. To date, no new funding has been approved by Congress. President Trump remains critical of the USPS and seems to be using their distress as leverage to get them to raise prices for their delivery service and, in the process, punish his ostensible rival, Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos.

Funding is only one necessary but missing ingredient for a successful expansion of vote-by-mail. At the state and local level, election officials must build effective working relations with postal officials.

These relationships are reflected in a complicated system of logistics, communication and safeguards that can take years to set up. In states with large vote by mail operations—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington run all-mail elections—the protections include last-minute election-night sweeps of Postal Service facilities to search for ballots. Colorado election officials, working with a group of local and national mailing vendors, closely track ballot delivery times and take steps to move some mail faster. When deadlines get closer, vendors who help with ballot logistics will ask the Postal Service for clearance to send ballots using faster and more expensive classes of mail.

“The whole system has to work together to increase the speed of the ballot,” said Judd Choate, Colorado’s director of elections.

One reason that relationship needs to be strong is so it can flex around the capabilities of the USPS. Local election officials can adjust their rules so there’s time for ballots to be received by voters, returned, and counted. In some states, the rules for voting by mail seem to have been set with little consideration of the Post Office’s ability to do its part. In Ohio, for example, voters had until noon three days before the election to request an absentee ballot. And Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser to the Democracy Fund and a former Arizona election official, writes, “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.”

Even adjustment to voting regulations might not be enough. Voters need to be educated, as well. According to Patrick, “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.”

The USPS seconds her advice. In a guidance memo issued at the end of May, they advise:

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 one week prior to the due date established by state law. 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.

Every voter should have equal and fair access to the ballot box. That means we must keep advocating on behalf of election officials, protect the Postal Service, and educate voters-by-mail of their need to act promptly so that even if the USPS stumbles, their votes will be counted.—Martin Levine