In the 2020 election, in the midst of a pandemic, voting by mail was critical in ensuring people could perform their civic duty without putting their health, or even lives, at risk. As a result, the majority of states expanded their mail-in voting systems, and the country saw an unprecedented number of ballots cast by mail. It was a good example of democracy at work. But whatever the triumphs of vote-by-mail — and there were many — there are legitimate questions about whether the United States Postal Service did its job properly, and whether democracy might have been better served by it.
Processing of mail-in ballots slowed in the days before the election, and there are reports that tens of thousands of ballots arrived late. The postal service has denied those reports. But Louis DeJoy’s disastrous tenure as the nation’s postmaster general does not inspire confidence. And with the integrity of our elections at stake, DeJoy and the USPS must be investigated.
After DeJoy took over the Postal Service in May, his reforms, which included restricting overtime and reducing the number of mail sorting machines, caused a significant delay in mail deliveries. People received medication and other important deliveries several days late and, with the election looming, there were growing concerns over whether ballots would be delivered on time. A federal judge blocked DeJoy’s most controversial changes to the agency prior to the election, but the impact of the postmaster general’s shakeup may have lingered. A recent report showed that the on-time processing rate for mail-in ballots declined as Nov. 3 approached. In the last five days before Election Day, that rate dropped from 97.1 percent to 89.6 percent. With millions of voters relying on the postal service to deliver their ballots on time, even a slight slowdown in mail delivery may have resulted in thousands of uncounted votes.
Unfortunately, when Election Day arrived, DeJoy’s leadership further undermined the democratic process. USPS failed to comply, for example, with a federal court order that required the agency to inspect its facilities to ensure that all mailed ballots were delivered on time. The failure to do so was especially dangerous because at least 30 states discount ballots that arrive after Election Day. Some reports estimated more than 300,000 ballots were not delivered on time. The Postal Service says those kinds of claims are way off the mark and, to be fair, there is cause to believe they are based on faulty data. But they must be investigated nonetheless.
The agency says that it did not conduct the court-ordered sweeps because it did not have the time. Even if that’s true, though, it is a sign of poor or incompetent management; a smoothly run Postal Service should be able to spare some time to do one of its most crucial duties.
A federal judge has already called for DeJoy to testify under oath about his agency’s failure to conduct the sweeps. But a broader investigation to verify that the Postal Service did, in fact, sort through and deliver all mail-in ballots on time without any consequential mistakes is warranted because of DeJoy’s constant undermining of the agency. Back in September, a federal judge, blocking some of the postmaster general’s controversial reforms, said that Trump and DeJoy were involved in a “politically motivated attack” on the Postal Service. And from the very beginning, DeJoy’s reforms, coupled with Trump’s consistent attacks on mail-in voting, seemed to undermine the election in the president’s favor. Earlier this year, House Democrats opened an investigation into the Postal Service when they sought to prevent a USPS-induced disaster come Election Day. Now they must do a post-mortem.
An investigation could help prevent problems in future elections, which may also heavily rely on mail-in voting. And if an investigation shows no wrongdoing, that would only bolster public confidence in the election, a critical need given President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud, which have undermined the legitimacy of the outcome in the eyes of many of his supporters.
There is no question that DeJoy’s leadership has dealt a blow to the reliability of the Postal Service. It could be the result of gross incompetence or a politically motivated attack on the agency, as the federal judge said. But whatever the reason, the integrity of this election rests on ensuring that all ballots mailed on time are counted. That’s what the American people — and their democracy — deserve, and anyone who stands in the way of that must face consequences.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.