Why the Post Office’s Last-Minute Ballot Crisis Isn’t as Dire as It Seems

Many Americans have been waiting—perhaps even expecting—the recently unreliable USPS to screw up delivering ballots on a grand scale. Early on Election Day, evidence of that screw-up seemed to present itself when the USPS issued a court filing showing hundreds of thousands of pieces of election mail being scanned into their mail tracking system but never scanned out for delivery, implying these ballots must be buried in their sorting facilities or in the back of post offices. In the ongoing lawsuits regarding the USPS’s handling of election mail, a Federal judge ordered postal inspectors or employees from the Office of Inspector General to sweep dozens of postal facilities to ensure no ballots were left behind. 

Some reporters picked up on this and ran with it. 

But there is, in fact, a good reason for hundreds of thousands of ballots not being scanned for delivery. As the USPS repeatedly stated in its daily filings with the court on delivery statistics, “Defendants maintain that the data possesses little to no analytical value and should not be considered a reliable indicator of performance.” Indeed, the USPS has been intentionally making its performance look worse than it is by removing ballots from the normal sorting and delivery process to deliver ballots faster. 

What this means is the stats might look worse than they actually are, because in some cases postal workers have, for example, been manually postmarking the ballots and then passing them off for local same-or-next-day delivery, resulting in the ballots never being scanned into the system in the first place. Other measures, like sending ballots to the sorting facility but then removing them from the mail stream after they’ve been scanned and postmarked, means they are manually bypassing the rest of the process for expedited delivery and are thus scanned in and never scanned out. 

The suggestion that there are thousands of ballots sitting in sorting facilities around the country doesn’t pass the smell test. For example, a postal worker in Florida raised alarm when they found 62 ballots in a sorting facility (the ballots have since been delivered). The idea that 22,166 ballots have gone unnoticed in Arizona sorting facilities or 30,146 in Salt Lake City area facilities, as the daily filings say, is hard to believe. 

That being said, on the eve of such a critical election, a total sweep of the facilities in question as ordered by the judge is a prudent move. Why risk having ballots sitting around?

Unfortunately, the USPS did not complete the sweeps of the facilities by the court-mandated 3 p.m. EST, which has understandably raised concern, especially considering that Republicans have pushed in numerous states to throw out ballots that have not been delivered by the end of the day today. 

Plaintiffs including the NAACP immediately filed for a conference, but Judge Emmet Sullivan—who has thus far not been shy about putting USPS under court orders even if it’s just to do the things they say they’re going to do anyways—opted instead to let the USPS’s regular sweep and certification process continue.

Per standard operating procedure, USPS personnel sweep every facility, including the ones in question here, for ballots at least once a day during election cycles and report “all clear” certifications after they’re complete. The latest sweeps occurred this morning at 10 a.m. To order and coordinate a sweep by independent observers—of which there is often only one in entire sorting facilities which are often massive warehouses—in a matter of hours is no easy feat. It is likely the USPS was unable to comply with the court order due to the same bureaucratic inefficiencies that make the USPS unable to do anything differently on a rapid time scale. At any rate, those same independent observers were already scheduled to be on hand at the facilities from 4 to 8 p.m. to ensure no ballots were left behind, and Judge Sullivan decided that was good enough (before adding the USPS should be “prepared to discuss the apparent lack of compliance with the Court’s order” at their noon conference call tomorrow.)

None of this is to argue every single ballot has been handled properly by the USPS. I’m sure many of us have heard anecdotes of people who never received their ballots, and Postmaster General Lous DeJoy’s policies that tanked USPS reliability only added to the concern. But the question facing the USPS this election cycle was whether it would have any systematic, widespread screw-ups beyond the anecdotal. And so far, we don’t have any good evidence of that happening. That includes everything we’ve learned today. So far.