Despite months of planning and promises, new data shows the United States Postal Service suffered a significant slowdown in first-class mail in late September and early October, just as tens of millions of Americans went to drop their presidential ballots in mailboxes across the country.
A three-month test by NBCLX and NBC Owned Television Stations found most first-class letters still get delivered within 5 days — including official election mail — but delays are much more common now than they were in August or early September.
The agency's own figures echo the NBC findings, and shed light on just how far the Postal Service's performance has fallen since the May arrival of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a close ally of President Donald Trump. A recent federal audit explained how 57 new DeJoy "cost-reduction strategies" created confusion and disruptions among the USPS ranks, leading to adverse impact on the agency's performance.
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But the late-September/early-October declines came as a surprise, after two months of modest improvements. The USPS has refused to address direct questions about the declines or why certain regions of the country — in particular, metros around the mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions — are suffering the nation's slowest mail.
NBCLX and NBC Owned Television Stations found — of 809 letters sent around the country — only 79% arrived within the post office's promised 1-to-3-day window, a drop from the 88% delivered on time from the group's August and September tests. Internal USPS reports, obtained through ongoing federal litigation, supported the stations' findings.
While 98% of NBC's October letters arrived within 5 days, a two-day delay in mail delivery could invalidate tens of thousands of ballots in states with strict deadlines. Democratic and Republican groups have been waging war in courtrooms all over the country over how many days states should allow for ballots to arrive.
Thirty-two states require ballots to be received by Election Day, but a court ruling allowed one of those states — Pennsylvania — to accept ballots until Nov. 6 this year.
Eighteen other states will accept mail ballots received after Nov. 3, including several with very small windows for receiving your votes. That includes Texas (one day), New Jersey (two days), California (three days), North Carolina (three days) and Virginia (three days). You can check your state here.
While a few thousand votes are unlikely to swing a presidential race, it is certainly not unheard of: Donald Trump won Michigan by just over 10,000 votes in 2016, while Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire by just 2,736. Florida's electoral fate was infamously decided by just 537 votes in 2000.
Then there are countless local races decided by voters each fall, typically by much smaller margins than the presidential race. In 2018, Florida Republican Rick Scott was elected to the U.S. Senate by just 10,033 votes; in 2008, Minnesota Democrat Al Franken was elected to the U.S. Senate by just 225 votes, and in any given year, dozens of local offices around the country will be decided by single- and double-digit margins.
The USPS announced specific measures to fast-track election mail, including bar codes and election logos on envelopes so no ballot gets left behind. It also rolled back most of DeJoy's cost-saving initiatives following congressional pressure and several losses in federal court.
"The Postal Service ... will continue to take all necessary steps to expeditiously process and prioritize the delivery of ballots this Election season," the agency wrote in a press release Friday evening. "Consistent with practices in past election cycles, the Postal Service has authorized and instructed the use of extraordinary measures, such as expedited handling, extra deliveries and special pickups, starting Oct. 26 through Nov. 24, 2020, to accelerate the delivery of ballots."
The USPS also promised more attention to postmarking ballots, since illegible or missing postmarks can get last-minute ballots rejected in some states. Of the nearly 1,400 letters NBCLX and NBC Owned Television Stations mailed the last three months, more than 1% were missing postmarks.
Several secretaries of state told NBCLX they had confidence in the postal service, despite its documented problems nationally.
"My relationship with the local postmaster is fantastic," said Nellie Gorbea, Rhode Island's secretary of state. "The minute we started hearing concerns in news media outlets about what was going on with the Postal Service — the removal of postal boxes or the dismantling of machinery — I was able to get her on the phone within an hour."
"You can absolutely trust voting by mail in this country," she said. "There are a lot of safeguards in place."
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said elections supervisors — of all parties, and in all regions of the country — have been working with the USPS to improve ballot design and sorting/delivery procedures.
"The U.S. Postal Service seems to be doing a good job," LaRose said. "What's unfortunate is because of all of the noise and rhetoric — really on both sides of the aisle — people have this irrational fear right now, this irrational trepidation about mailing their ballot."
"For our first-time absentee voters in Ohio," LaRose added, "(I'm) hoping they become longtime absentee voters and continue to use it well into 2021 and beyond."