Critical mail delays hit swing states ahead of US election

Tom Perkins
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images

Delivery of first class mail in several Michigan cities remains much slower than usual during the two weeks preceding the election, a test of the local postal system found.

The Guardian sent about 150 first class letters between locations in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Hamtramck, three Democratic strongholds in the critical battleground state. The mail was sent to mimic the route that a ballot would take from a mailbox to a city clerk’s office in the same municipality. About 83% of the mail arrived on time. But the service was much worse in Detroit where about 36% of letters arrived at least three days late, and one Detroit letter remains unaccounted for.

Detroit delays could spell trouble for Democratic candidates and the Biden campaign. About 170,000 Detroiters, who are overwhelmingly Democratic, have requested absentee ballots ahead of the election. Trump previously won the state by just over 10,000 votes, and a Michigan judge recently ruled that mail-in ballots arriving after election day will not count. The Detroit city clerk exacerbated the situation by failing to send out 70,000 absentee ballots until the election’s final weeks.

Before the pandemic, and changes made by the Trump-appointed postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, this summer, the United States Postal Service posted on-time delivery rates of around 95%. But new cost-cutting strategies, including the removal of sorting machines at the nation’s largest mail processing center in Pontiac, have slowed distribution.

The on-time delivery rate in the Guardian’s test is in line with the latest data from the postal service, which put its on-time rate in Detroit as low as 52% during a recent three-day period. The national rate was at 82% for a week-long period ending on 16 October, though it has been much lower in key swing states.

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The Michigan Senator Gary Peters called the rate “completely unacceptable”. “The postmaster general must immediately comply with all court orders and confirm he has reversed damaging changes that caused severe disruptions to mail service,” he said in a statement.

The one-two blows delivered by DeJoy and the pandemic have been tough for the postal agency to recover from, said Roscoe Woods, president of the American Postal Workers Union in Michigan. “We’re still struggling,” he told the Guardian. “Not having the extra firepower matters, and Covid has been hammering our workforce.”

However, Woods stressed that the postal service was prioritizing ballots and election mail. Groups of employees on each shift pull ballots from the mail stream and expedite their processing, so Woods is confident that election mail is moving through the system quicker than the other first class letters. Employees are also working overtime, reversing a summer DeJoy directive that barred staff from putting in extra hours.

Woods said he couldn’t explain why mail was delivered quicker in Ann Arbor and Hamtramck than Detroit. “Delivery is spotty sometimes and there are certain cities that are doing better than others, and I can’t point to any particular reason why,” he said.

Meanwhile, other technicalities could also threaten ballots. About 11% of the letters sent as part of the Guardian test had issues with illegible postmarks that include the time and date that the envelopes were received – which Woods said could have resulted from printers running low on ink or not being quickly replaced. While Michigan won’t count late-arriving ballots, Pennsylvania will count those postmarked on or before election day. Ballots that are missing the date stamp, however, wouldn’t be counted. (The Guardian is tracking mail-in ballots in critical swing states here.)

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DeJoy, a Trump appointee, has been accused of intentionally crippling the mail service to delay ballots. Though federal judges ordered the reversal of many of DeJoy’s operational changes, Michigan’s sorting machines were never replaced.

In a written statement sent to the Guardian, a USPS spokeswoman, Martha Johnson, noted that the agency has implemented a number of measures to ensure that election mail is expedited and delivered on time. She questioned the accuracy of the Guardian’s test despite it being in line with the postal service’s own data and Peters’ investigation.

“The postal service cannot substantiate that your test represents a reasonable approximation of election mail,” Johnson wrote.

But Michigan Democrats have recognized the potential for lost votes and in recent weeks have been asking voters to avoid the mail and take ballots to a drop box or city clerk’s office. The office of the secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, on 26 October began urging residents with absentee ballots to “sign the back of the envelope and hand-deliver it to their city or township clerk’s office or ballot drop box as soon as possible”.

Meanwhile, Voters Not Politicians, a non-partisan non-profit that promotes voting access, has since 19 October been urging residents to take ballots to drop boxes or election offices. It set up an online dropbox locator, and partnered with the League of Women Voters on an information initiative that specifically targets Detroiters.

Dropping off ballots is the best way to “have assurance that your ballot will be received”, said Nancy Wang, Voters Not Politicians’ executive director.

“With the postal service there’s that uncertainty there, and you don’t want to push it and risk having your vote not counted, so we’re playing our part to get people to act early to make sure their vote is in, and I’m happy to see a lot of voters voting as early as they could,” she said.