There Is (Still) No Good Evidence the USPS Screwed This One Up

Bad data and antiquated processes have created a lot of confusion, but there's no reason to believe the USPS didn't deliver this election.
November 5, 2020, 10:29pm
Ballot mail
Nathan Howard via Getty Images

In the opening minutes of a hearing in the ongoing lawsuit against the USPS for its handling of election mail, a lawyer for voting rights organization Vote Forward cited some statistics from last night's court filing. According to the filing, "about 150,000 ballots were delivered yesterday," the lawyer said, meaning after Election Day.

Several reporters on Twitter and news outlets including the Washington Post ran with this, reporting these statistics broken down by state before adding that the untallied votes in the Post's words "could loom large in tightening races in states that could swing crucial electoral votes, and ultimately control of the White House."


But that was not the full story. As the NAACP legal representative himself went on to say just seconds later, all but a tiny percentage of those 150,000 ballots were likely dropped off too late for the USPS to deliver them. Only about five percent of those ballots did not meet the USPS's service standard for election mail, meaning the other 95 percent was dropped off too close to the election to be guaranteed on-time delivery. And that five percent of ballots, spread out across the entire country, are unlikely to make a difference. 

The root of the confusion stems from the fact that, in order to expedite delivery, the USPS does not track ballots it takes out of the typical mail like it tracks packages or other barcoded mailpieces, resulting in delivery statistics that make it look like the USPS is performing much worse than it is. On top of that, various other factors make what few statistics do reflect reality hard to parse with any certainty. For example, local ballots receive both an arrival and departure scan before they go out for delivery, while ballots being sent to another sorting facility receive only an arrival scan (if it is not pulled from the mailstream to be expedited, the ballot will then receive its departure scan at that second facility). This means, based on the data available right now, some ballots will be double-counted if they're scanned twice in the same facility. But, we don't know how many double-scans there were yet, making it hard to know exactly how many ballots were unnecessarily delayed by the USPS. Assuming a worst-case scenario and that all the ballots were local, we would be talking about perhaps 68 ballots in Atlanta and 400 in all of Pennsylvania that the USPS screwed up. Even in an election as close as this one, 68 ballots in Atlanta is unlikely to be the difference.


None of this is new information. The USPS has repeatedly explained this dynamic in detail in court filings and during testimony in recent weeks, including in today's hearing.

This is not to say the USPS handled every ballot perfectly. But, it is yet another reminder there is no good evidence the USPS screwed up delivering hundreds of thousands of ballots. 

Nor is this to say the USPS has a great process for handling election mail. Having a ballot delivery process that can only offer a shruggie if anyone asks what percentage of ballots were delivered on time is bad. But it's in keeping with how the USPS has been managed for decades, in which a top-heavy bureaucracy issues edicts from above and assumes they will be followed in an authoritarian hierarchy more akin to General Motors in the 1970s than a modern organization. The USPS officials who make the policy rely on plant managers to execute it, who then certify they're doing it. 

And that's exactly how the USPS treated ballot delivery. USPS officials don't feel confident they're handling election mail well because they have rock-solid performance statistics, but because plant managers are certifying they're doing what they're told. In the absence of any other good evidence—such as troves of missing ballots being reported by postal workers or complaints by election officials—it's the best information they have.  


This dynamic was laid bare during today's testimony when the USPS official overseeing election mail, Kevin Bray, was asked how he could know the USPS accomplished its goal of delivering every ballot on time if it didn't track them. 

"What we rely on at the headquarters level is confidence in our managers and the data available to us that mailpieces are being moved on time," he replied. "I expected them to do this. I never expected to have to come to court and explain it."

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Correction: a previous version of this article mis-identified the the lawyer speaking during the hearing. It was a representative for Vote Forward, not the NAACP. Both are co-plaintiffs on the lawsuit.