Mail delivery lags behind targets as election nears, records show

The message to voters is clear: Mail those ballots early.
In this July 31 photo, letter carriers load mail trucks for deliveries at a U.S. Postal Service facility in McLean, Va.
In this July 31 photo, letter carriers load mail trucks for deliveries at a U.S. Postal Service facility in McLean, Va. [ J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE | AP ]
Published Sep. 24, 2020|Updated Sep. 24, 2020

States are seeing record-breaking interest in mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic. But controversial changes at the U.S. Postal Service have compounded long-standing delivery delays nationwide and sparked concerns among election officials and voters alike over the agency’s ability to deliver this fall.

Data obtained by The Associated Press shows postal districts across the country are missing by wide margins the agency’s own goals for on-time delivery, raising the possibility that scores of mailed ballots could miss deadlines for reaching local election offices if voters wait too long. Missing a deadline is a key reason mail-in ballots get rejected.

Several postal districts serving urban regions in battleground states have a history of delivering mail at below the national targets and saw sharp drop-offs in performance over the summer. The message to voters is clear: Mail those ballots early.

“As soon as possible,” said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat.

The Postal Service, long an afterthought in the political process, has been drawn into the fray after its new leader, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, implemented a series of cost-cutting measures that delayed deliveries nationwide. The changes have sparked a flurry of legal challenges and caused concerns over the agency’s ability to handle the anticipated crush of election mail this year, although DeJoy has said it will be the Postal Service’s top priority.

DeJoy, a GOP megadonor with no previous experience at the Postal Service, postponed the removal of mail sorting machines and collection boxes last month. He said it was “to avoid even the appearance of impact on election mail.”

Despite pausing some policies, DeJoy left in place rules restricting when mail can leave warehouses, which several postal workers have said is a main culprit behind the delays. Federal judges have since ordered the Postal Service to halt all changes, although the agency said it is exploring its legal options.

On-time delivery across the country dipped substantially in the weeks after DeJoy took office in mid-June, according to internal weekly performance data obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request. While service began rebounding toward the end of summer, no Postal Service region is meeting the agency’s target of delivering more than 95 percent of first-class mail within five days.

“One of the most frustrating aspects about the changes that have happened at the Postal Service over the past several months is that it’s created uncertainty and chaos where none existed prior, and now you do have so many citizens asking, ‘Is my vote going to get there on time?’” Benson said.

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Even as DeJoy took over, many of the Postal Service districts serving regions that are in important presidential swing states delivered mail at well below the national average. Quarterly data covering April through June shows that 17.5 percent of first-class mail took longer than three or five days to arrive at its destination in many parts of the country.

Mail arrived within three to five days less than 90 percent of the time in Milwaukee, Miami, Orlando, the Ohio valley and in the North Carolina cities of Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte, according to the agency’s quarterly data.

Delivery times worsened after DeJoy started and remained below the agency’s targets at the end of August. On-time delivery in northern Ohio, which includes Cleveland, dipped to as low as 63 percent in July before rising to 88 percent by the end of August.

The trend in Pennsylvania was similar. On-time delivery declined to as low as 79 percent for the Philadelphia area and to 67 percent for the central part of the state. Earlier this year, the Philadelphia district averaged 84.5 percent on-time delivery, according to the quarterly data.

Nick Custodio, deputy city commissioner in Philadelphia, urged mail-in voters to move quickly to obtain an absentee ballot and send it back to avoid any delivery delays.

“People should apply early,” he said. “Apply now, in fact.”

Postal Service spokesman Dave Partenheimer said the agency is committed to improving service and pointed to a nearly 89 percent national on-time rate for first-class mail at the start of September.

On the ground, the public turmoil surrounding the Postal Service has at least some voters wondering if the mail-in system will work.

“Lots of customers have asked me if their ballots will get there on time,” said Laura Hogg, a letter carrier in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “Some people have said they’re going to go vote in person just because of the gravity of the election. They just want to make sure their vote is counted.”