Why You Shouldn't Be Too Worried About Voting by Mail (Yet)

Request your ballot as early as your state allows, send it back more than a week before the election, and trust an institution that has delivered for more than 200 years.
August 18, 2020, 12:00pm
Rural mailboxes artsy
Image: Jason Koebler

On August 11, William Malone went to Milwaukee's city hall to drop off his primary ballot in person because he no longer trusts the post office. "I’ve been having trouble with the mail in general, but I don't trust it with regard to this because of the timeliness needed to make sure my ballot is received and counted," he said.

In some ways, this is exactly what Donald Trump wants. He has been insulting the United States Postal Service for months, calling it "a joke" back in April. More recently, he's been saying the postal service can't have a stimulus package to accommodate for lost revenue due to the pandemic because he wants to disrupt the voting process. Trump clearly wants you to believe voting by mail is a bad idea so you have to risk voting in person during a pandemic.

At the same time, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has, as Malone attested, instituted policies that have significantly delayed the mail, such as slashing overtime hours needed to deal with a surge in packages and limiting the amount of time carriers have to organize mail before they head out on their routes. As a result, some packages are getting delivered weeks late. And some addresses are getting inconsistent mail delivery. DeJoy and the USPS say they're doing these things to enhance operational efficiency even as operations deteriorate.

This disconnect has bred conspiracy theories that Trump and DeJoy are in cahoots to "sabotage" the post office ahead of the election (I use "conspiracy theory" here quite literally to mean a theory of a conspiracy, not as a turn of phrase to imply crackpottery). After all, DeJoy is a longtime Republican fundraiser and major Trump donor.

Regardless of whether the conspiracy theory is true, the circumstantial evidence would seem to indicate Trump is getting what he wants. American voters are increasingly worried about using the post office to vote this election. Even the mere perception that the post office cannot deliver ballots effectively may accomplish the goal of Trump's misinformation campaign, which is to depress voter turnout or undermine confidence in the election.

But even with all of the changes in place—and a broader concern about the post office's future—rank-and-file postal workers remain confident they can handle the ballots as long as voters don't wait to mail them in until just a few days before the election.

"What I would say to people that may think that the post office is going downhill or they're starting to lose trust: don't do that," said Paul McKenna, president of Milwaukee Area Local 3 of the American Postal Workers Union. "I've never seen workers that are so dedicated to their job and dedicated to the American people to get the mail out."

While the USPS's long-standing plan to decommission hundreds of mail-sorting machines around the country is worrying for a number of reasons, it's unlikely to have an impact on the election because the USPS is dealing with so much less mail right now than a typical year. Through June of this year, marketing mail and first class mail is down 15.3 percent and four percent, respectively, versus the same period last year. Some of that mail volume will surely return, but it's far from clear when or to what degree that will happen. And even though package volumes have soared, they are processed through different machines and workflows.

Plus, the USPS collects, sorts, and delivers so much mail every single day, even a massive influx of ballots is unlikely to significantly disrupt the system as long as it's spread out over more than just a few days.

Last year, the USPS processed and delivered 472.1 million mailpieces each day on average. Meanwhile, about 139 million ballots were cast in the 2016 presidential election. Assuming a similar turnout this election season, and if we make the additional but extreme assumption that every single ballot will be cast by mail this November, that would result in 278 million more mailpieces for USPS to process (each ballot makes two trips through the post office, one to voters and one back to local election officials). If those ballots go out and back over a three week period (18 days of mail operations, since Sunday is packages only), that amounts to 15.4 million ballots processed per day on average, or a little more than three percent of the USPS's daily mail volume last year. And, again, that is the high end estimate assuming every single ballot will be mailed in.

But, remember, these are just averages and mail volume is cyclical. The USPS is used to handling surges around, say, the late summer for back-to-school promotions and the Christmas season. Mail volume, by nature, isn't steady. So adding a few percentage points more mail over a multi-week period shouldn't disrupt a system used to absorbing ebbs and flows. Compared to the actual counting of the ballots, the postal service is well-positioned to deliver nearly all of the ballots on time.

Of course, this isn't to say we should assume everything will be fine and stop paying attention. And there are things you can do:

  • If you live in a state where you have to request your absentee/mail-in ballot, do so as early as you possibly can. There are any number of websites and media articles for looking up your state's vote-by-mail rules and how to request a ballot. But the surest way is to go to your local election commission's website.
  • Send your ballot back as early as possible. As McKenna previously told Motherboard, it's time to resuscitate the "flatten the curve" line, this time for ballot processing. The earlier you send in the ballot, the more spread out the distribution of ballots mailed will be, and the easier it will be for postal workers to process them all without getting overwhelmed by an influx of mail.
  • If your jurisdiction has ballot drop-off boxes or locations, consider using them, like Malone in Milwaukee did.

Unfortunately, any efforts to disrupt the Post Office in advance of an election purely because more people will vote by mail accords with America's troubled history of voter suppression. As Ari Berman of Mother Jones has thoroughly documented through his years of reporting culminating in the book Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, the coronavirus crisis has handed the GOP new opportunities to suppress the vote. But it's important not to confuse vigilance with panic. If we're not careful, that panic could result in the very outcome Trump wants: people not trusting the post office to do its job.

The good news is the American population is much more awake to the troubles at the post office than it typically is to other modes of voter suppression. And that will make it harder for the voter suppression to be effective.

One postal worker from Massachusetts, who asked not to be named as they're not authorized to speak to the media, told me that ballots are often processed in their distribution facility as if they're express mail even though they don't have the appropriate postage. They just know ballots are sacred.