Key swing states that may well decide the presidential race are recording some of the nation’s most erratic mail service as a record number of Americans are relying on the US Postal Service to deliver their ballots, agency data show.
Consistent and timely delivery remains scattershot as the agency struggles to right operations after the botched rollout, then suspension, of a major midsummer restructuring. In 17 postal districts comprising 10 battleground states and 151 electoral votes, first-class mail service is down 7.8 percentage points from January benchmarks and nearly 2 percentage points below the national average. By that measure, roughly 16 in 100 items will not arrive within the Postal Service’s one- to three-day delivery window; in January, it was fewer than 10.
The slowdowns, which have raised alarms and suspicions among voters, postal workers, and voting experts, have particular implications for states with strict deadlines. Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia, for example, do not accept ballots that arrive after Election Day, even if postmarked before. Of the states that do, there’s generally a short acceptance window: North Carolina, where polls have President Trump and Democratic nominee and former vice president Joe Biden in a dead heat — postmarked ballots must arrive within three days of the election.
''There are fundamental and foundational issues with the Postal Service that go beyond voting. And there are issues with election administration that we can address,'' said David Becker, executive director of the nonprofit nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research. ''But the rules we have for the next 14 days are the rules we have.''
''There are always variabilities in the mail. There have always been concerns about variabilities in the mail. There have always been states that have firm deadlines after which no more ballots will be accepted. There has always been an element of voter responsibility along with responsibility of election officials and the Postal Service. And voters are embracing that responsibility.''
Of the 52.7 million voters who requested mail-in ballots, 13.7 million have been returned as of Tuesday, according to the US Elections Project.
In Detroit, where Democrats are relying on heavy turnout to carry the rest of Michigan, only 70.9 percent of first-class mail was on time the week ended Oct. 9, compared with 92.2 percent at the start of the year.
In Wisconsin — which struggled mightily with a vote-by-mail primary in August — on-time delivery fell to 84.3 percent in the Lakeland district, which encompasses most of the state. North Carolina’s Greensboro district, which includes Raleigh and Durham, showed service was 10.1 percentage points lower than it was in January. Timeliness also varied widely in postal districts in Pennsylvania and Florida.
Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer said the agency has maintained performance standards despite surging mail volumes and challenges related to the pandemic. The agency has made an estimated 64 million ballot deliveries — to and from election offices — through Oct. 7, agency data show.
''The Postal Service is fully committed and actively working to handle the increase in election mail volume across the country over the next two weeks,'' he said in an e-mailed statement to the Post, adding that extra staff and resources have been allocated to help process and deliver election mail.
Those teams have also been instructed to use ''extraordinary measures beyond the normal course of operations . . . to accelerate the delivery of ballots,'' Partenheimer wrote. Those measures include expedited handling, special pickups, and extra and Sunday deliveries.
But some postal workers say ballot-handling directives from higher-ups have been chaotic.
Letter carriers in Michigan say supervisors press them to focus on package delivery in the waning hours of their shifts, pushing ballot collection down the priority list. In Pennsylvania, clerks are preparing to hand stamp ballot envelopes in the waning days of the 2020 campaign, to steer ballots away from overwhelmed processing plants. In Florida, where package volumes are sky-high, employees are working 12-hour days, seven days a week, through at least the end of October.
State and local officials and election experts say municipalities have made great strides in preparing for an election in which 198 million Americans are eligible to vote by mail. But mail service reliability remains a key variable. Postal leaders are scrambling to build confidence in an agency maligned as a ''joke'' by Trump; forced to suspend a major cost-cutting agenda; and told 46 states and the District of Columbia that their election regulations were ''incongruous'' with mail service.
The new data reveal an agency marked by inconsistencies and fighting to stabilize itself before a final influx of ballots, as well as an onslaught of packages, greeting cards and catalogues for the holiday season.
''In the current state of the world, there is nothing a voter could do to work around problems in the post office,'' said J. Remy Green, an attorney who represents a group of voters in a lawsuit against the Postal Service before the Southern District of New York.
''I think at the end of the day, the damage that has been done here, it’s not just service performance and quantifiable damage,'' Green said. ''It is a kind of psychic damage to the confidence of voters and confidence in the vote.''
Political analysts say unreliable mail delivery could be a factor in tight state races. According to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted by Ipsos at the end of the summer, 34 percent of registered voters said they were not confident their vote would be counted correctly if submitted by mail. Another 37 percent were only ''somewhat'' confident. More than 60 percent of respondents said they’d never before voted by mail.