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Mail Delivery In Swing States Falls Short, Worrying Elections Officials


If you're planning to vote by mail this election, there are troubling signs that on-time mail delivery is not meeting the standards set by the Postal Service. APM Reports, the investigations unit of American Public Media, analyzed first-class mail delivery data, and it found that mail service in critical swing states is worse than a year ago. Elections officials worry that late ballots may never be counted. Tom Scheck has the story.

TOM SCHECK, BYLINE: The coronavirus pandemic has prompted tens of millions of people across the country to consider something different this November - voting by mail. Wisconsin resident Aliza Werner is one of them. In June, she and her husband requested absentee ballots for the August primary, but she started worrying after not getting her ballot after waiting a month.

ALIZA WERNER: As people started talking more and more about the upcoming election, I just thought, you know, I really should have received that by now; it's been a couple of weeks.

SCHECK: She says she was told other voters in the Milwaukee suburb reported similar problems. The clerk canceled Werner's initial ballot and resent new ones. Elections officials say nearly 700 ballots were not delivered to Milwaukee-area voters for this week's primary, and that comes just months after thousands of ballots didn't reach Wisconsin voters in the April primary. An analysis of mail delivery confirms voter complaints. The postal district serving eastern and southern Wisconsin repeatedly failed to meet on-time delivery goals since 2016, putting it in the bottom quarter of districts of cross the country.

Wisconsin isn't the only swing state postal district failing to meet delivery standards. Detroit's on-time delivery for two-day mail plunged nearly 22% since last year. None of this surprises Tina Barton. She's an elections manager in Michigan and says some primary voters there complained about never even getting ballots in the mail.

TINA BARTON: So even a couple of weeks prior to that, I had a city council member tell me that they had gone four days and had not received any mail. And so about a couple of weeks prior to the election, I was really starting to sound the alarm to people, and I had also...

SCHECK: Barton says she started telling voters who requested ballots in the run up to the primary to return them in person. Timely mail delivery is important because Michigan, like more than half the states, requires ballots to be returned by Election Day. Postal officials are urging voters to mail their ballots at least a week before Election Day. They also say they're working with elections officials to educate them about election mail standards. Speaking before the Postal Service's Board of Governors last week, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said election mail will be delivered in a timely manner.


LOUIS DEJOY: We have delivery standards that have been in place for many years. These standards have not changed. And despite any assertions to the contrary, we are not slowing down election mail or any other mail.

TAMMY PATRICK: We are dealing with a directive under the new postmaster general that is not seeking to improve the delivery performance.

SCHECK: Tammy Patrick is an election mail expert for the Democracy Fund. She says DeJoy's recent changes to how the Postal Service is run will make mail delivery slower at a time when it needs to speed up.

PATRICK: When you eliminate overtime, when you change the work ethos of an entire organization that is get the mail through to leave it behind, it's going to cause problems.

SCHECK: DeJoy made his changes after the on-time delivery data was collected for the last quarter, leading Patrick to suspect it's even worse now. Individual postal carriers and a union leader representing postal workers also say the changes are leading to upheaval and significant delays across the country. Elections officials are urging voters to hand deliver their ballots to a drop box or elections office if it's close to Election Day.

Still, some voting rights advocates say that doesn't go far enough. Allison Riggs leads the voting rights program at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in North Carolina. She says North Carolina doesn't have a lot of experience handling mailed ballots; couple that with mail delivery worries, and Riggs says it's better to vote in person.

ALLISON RIGGS: We're suddenly talking about, potentially, hundreds of thousands of new things to be in the mail.

SCHECK: Back in Wisconsin, Aliza Werner says she'll again request a ballot be mailed to her for the November election, but she won't return it by mail.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Scheck.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Scheck