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Millions of Mail-in Ballots at Risk in Battleground States

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 10/31/2020 Rob Barry, Kevin Poulsen, Vanessa Qian
a group of people standing outside of a food truck © Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Millions of mail-in ballots haven’t been received by election offices in critical battleground states, where recent slowdowns in mail deliveries risk some votes not arriving in time to count for the presidential election.

As of Oct. 30, more than seven million mailed ballots had not been returned in the 13 most competitive states that require ballots to arrive on or before Election Day, a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from the University of Florida’s U.S. Elections Project found. That’s about 28% of the more than 24 million ballots that had been tallied in those states, the Elections Project data show.

Many of the states, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Florida, were narrowly won in the 2016 presidential election, in some cases by only a few thousand votes, making the outstanding ballots potentially critical to figuring a winner this time around.

Mail delays won’t help the situation: So far this week, first-class mail times have slowed from the week before in 12 of the 13 competitive states with tight deadlines, according to data from mail-tracking firm GrayHair Software.

In a statement, the Postal Service said it had seen an exceedingly high volume of mail moving through the system this week, and was continuing to “implement extraordinary measures to advance and expedite the delivery of the nation’s ballots,” including extra trips, extended overtime shifts for workers and mail collection on Sunday.

The total number of outstanding votes is difficult to know with precision. Some voters who requested mail-in ballots may wind up voting in person or not at all. Some states, such as Colorado, automatically mail ballots to every eligible voter, leading to potential overestimates in the number of outstanding ballots. Many states, including Florida and Arizona, also offer ballot drop boxes, which don’t use the Postal Service.

Thus far, the Postal Service said it has processed more than 4.5 billion pieces of political and election mail, more than double the 2016 election cycle, including 122 million ballots. A spokesman said the Postal Service didn’t comment on third-party data.

Documents filed Oct. 30 by the Postal Service in federal court in the District of Columbia show the service has struggled in recent weeks to hit its own on-time targets, which typically range between two and five business days for first-class mail.

Nationwide, the Postal Service said just 62% of first-class mail was delivered on time on Tuesday, with Philadelphia and Detroit both seeing on-time delivery rates below 50% that day. Performance ticked up in those cities on Wednesday, with the national on-time delivery average currently hovering at 89%.

In the court filings, the Postal Service also gave a snapshot of mail-in ballot performance. Ballots arrived on time more often than regular first-class mail, though in some areas, a substantial number were late. On Thursday, 9% of returned mail-in ballots were late in Philadelphia and 20% were delivered late in Detroit. Overall, the Postal Service delivered 94% of returned ballots on time on Thursday, it said.

David Partenheimer, the Postal Service spokesman, said the daily data produced in court was unreliable. “The processing data included are daily scores, as ordered by the court, but they are not comparable to our normal reporting,” Mr. Partenheimer said.

In the week ending Oct. 23, 80.85% of first-class mail was delivered on time, down from about 85% earlier in the month, Postal Service data show. The Postal Service said the slowdown was due in part to impacts from the coronavirus, increased mail volume and efforts to prioritize ballots.

In Michigan, where Donald Trump eked out a victory with just 10,704 more votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016, more than 700,000 requested ballots had not been received by election officials as of Oct. 29, Elections Project data show. Delivery times averaged more than six days this week, the GrayHair data show, raising questions about how many of those ballots could arrive late and then go uncounted. Michigan’s deadline for ballots to be counted is Election Day.

At the USPS Pontiac Metroplex distribution center in Michigan, where as many as five million mail pieces are processed a day, the scene was chaotic in the final days of the election: First-class mail piled up on the floors, some of the nonelection mail delayed there already for nine days, even as extra workers cycled through 12-hour, seven-day shifts, according to an employee there.

A dedicated team of four spent mornings sifting through the piles of mail in search of ballots for expedited handling, the employee said.

“We are closely monitoring the flow of mail in this facility and facilities across the country. Members of our Election Mail Task Force, along with the Postal Inspection Service, are in the plant every day and are aggressively addressing issues,” Mr. Partenheimer said.

Legal experts say mail delays in states with rigid ballot deadlines could lead to challenges that delay the election results.

“It increases the chance of litigation,” Akhil Reed Amar, a Yale University professor of constitutional law and political science said.

At the same time, record early-voting numbers could limit the impact of the national slowdowns in mail delivery—more than 80 million ballots had already been cast by Thursday, according to the Associated Press. “Half the people who are going to vote have voted, and their mail has already been delivered,” Mr. Amar said.

In Arizona, where Mr. Trump won by 91,234 votes, 1,225,387 ballots had not been returned as of Tuesday, the Elections Project data show. This comes as the state saw the slowest mail delivery in the U.S. this week, according to the GrayHair data, with first-class letter delivery times exceeding an average of 7.3 days.

Similar slowdowns were occurring in Georgia, where 624,842 requested ballots had not been returned as of Oct. 29, the Elections Project data show. In 2016, Mr. Trump won the state by 211,141 votes.

To be counted, ballots must be returned by Election Day in both states.

The Journal’s analysis excluded some states, such as Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Kansas, where mail-in ballots must be postmarked on Election Day but can be received later. The deadlines in several states have been the subjects of recent litigation.

The delays at the Postal Service have been exacerbated by the pandemic, staff shortages and controversial cost-cutting measures ordered by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy this summer.

In an effort to conduct an informal test of the postal system, the Journal over the past two months circulated a set of more than two dozen GPS trackers on 78 routes into and around some of the tightest battleground states, including Florida, Michigan, North Carolina and Arizona.

As of Oct. 29, 56 of those trips had been completed: at least 20 of the trips, or about 36%, took more than three days; nine, or about 16%, took more than five days; and five, or 9%, took more than seven days. The remaining 21 trips were still under way on Thursday (one recipient filed a change of address form and was excluded from the Journal’s analysis).

In its test, the Journal used several different first-class class mail methods, including both parcel service and letters.

Parcel delivery times were more consistent than letters, which ranged from two days (California to Wisconsin) to 15 (California to Michigan). None of the mail sent by the Journal was eligible for expedited handling as election mail.

Another letter, sent on Oct. 17 from California to a recipient in North Carolina, had yet to arrive as of Oct. 29.

Write to Rob Barry at


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