Julio Cortez / AP

Here's What Really Happened With Mail Ballots and USPS on Election Day

Postal Service says ballots were delivered on time, though Postmaster General DeJoy faces court censure.

The U.S. Postal Service is facing intense scrutiny from a federal court as the mailing agency defends its processing of ballots across the country, with a judge indicating he will call its chief executive to testify in the coming days. 

USPS’ processing of ballots came under question on Election Day, as the agency scrambled to get a record number of absentee and mailed votes to election boards by state deadlines. A federal judge’s order to conduct “sweeps” of processing plants to ensure no ballots were left behind in areas that had struggled with mail delays sparked headlines, particularly after the judge censured postal management for failing to comply with his direction. That non-compliance led the judge, Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, to tell USPS he would soon ask Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to testify before him. 

The Postal Service did conduct the sweeps, not just in the areas facing delays but at all 220 plants processing election mail, but it did so later in the day than the judge requested. Sullivan had ordered USPS to conduct sweeps by 3 p.m. on Tuesday, but postal management alerted the court after the deadline had passed it did so instead at 4 p.m. USPS said its inspectors who do the checking for ballots had other responsibilities on Tuesday and faced logistical hurdles to altering their schedules at the 11th hour. 

After completing the sweeps, USPS told the court Wednesday morning, inspectors identified a total of just 13 ballots that had not gone out, which they then expedited for delivery. 

By court order, USPS has also published its on-time performance scores for ballots every day since Oct. 24. On Election Day, the Postal Service processed about 93% of ballots going from voters to election boards on time. That does not mean, however, that the other 7% of ballots were not delivered. A ballot that should have been processed on Monday, for example, but was instead processed and delivered on Tuesday would be marked as not processed on time. That ballot still would have been received on time to count, even in states with a Tuesday deadline for receiving mailed ballots. Additionally, postal management explained their workers made a concerted effort to pull ballots from the normal delivery process and instead hand deliver them to election boards. When those ballots fall out of the system, they are no longer marked as processed on time. 

USPS has seen on-time processing for ballots dip in recent days, as Government Executive has reported, which postal management attributed in part to employee unavailability after a spike in COVID-19 cases within its workforce. It has also cautioned that not all ballots are trackable as such, and therefore the data may be unreliable. 

Plaintiffs in the case before Judge Sullivan—NAACP v. USPS—also raised concerns about 300,000 ballots the mailing agency had identified as scanned into the system that had not received a final delivery scan. The Postal Service said most of those had not received a final scan also due to employees pulling them out for special delivery. 

Dave Partenheimer, a USPS spokesman, on Wednesday defended the Postal Service’s election activities. 

“The assumption that there are unaccounted ballots within the Postal Service network is inaccurate,” Partenheimer said. “These ballots were delivered in advance of the election deadlines.” 

He added the Postal Service remains “in close contact with state and local boards of elections and we do not currently have any open issues” and that postal inspectors have “physically inspected all plants that process ballots.” USPS has been conducting sweeps to check for political advertising mail, voter registration documents and absentee voting requests since January, and has sent postal inspectors to all processing plants that handle election mail since Oct. 29. Many states will still accept mailed ballots in the coming days as long they were postmarked by Tuesday. Partenheimer said USPS is continuing to “accept, process and deliver ballots as they are entered into our network.” 

Sullivan on Wednesday continued to place new mandates on USPS so it could meet those deadlines. The Postal Service followed a court order to instruct employees to conduct sweeps in Texas on Wednesday, which is the last day for the state to receive mailed ballots, though a government attorney conceded during a hearing it sent the notification after Sullivan’s deadline to do so. USPS also told the court it looked into a report the plaintiffs raised that ballots had been sitting for days on a dock in a processing plant in Greensboro, N.C., and found no issues. 

USPS has said it has maintained such a focus on ballots in recent weeks that it caused a spike in mail delays writ large throughout its network. 

“While our ongoing commitment is to maintain the highest level of service performance for all mail, we acknowledge that our full focus and prioritization on election ballots is having a near-term impact on the overall on-time performance of other products throughout the network,” Kristin Seaver, chief retail and delivery officer for USPS said last week. 

While USPS is pointing to the pandemic and ballot delivery as responsible for ongoing mail delays, the slowdown first began to plague USPS after Postmaster General Louis DeJoy instituted reforms that changed the way the agency processed and delivered mail. Several federal courts around the country have since forced the Postal Service to roll back those changes at least through the election.