The U.S. Postal Service is seeing more delays in delivering the mail, with the agency disclosing last week that about 20% of all letters and packages sent around the country in the week ended October 23 were late. Mail-in ballots, which are tracked separately by the Postal Service, are also taking longer in some swing states to reach election officials.
To be sure, the USPS is prioritizing ballot delivery, which has a higher on-time delivery rate than general first-class mail. Even so, about 1 in 10 mail-in ballots aren't arriving on time, and the rates are worse for some regions, including those in several important swing states.
For instance, only about 7 in 10 ballots mailed in the Postal Service's Central Pennsylvania region were delivered on time to election officials during the week ended October 31, according to data released by the U.S. Postal Service following a court order after lawsuits had been filed against it by the NAACP and other groups.
Other regions in some swing states, including Michigan and North Carolina, showed even lower on-time delivery rates for ballots compared with the national ballot on-time delivery rate of about 91%, the data indicate. That could be a problem for voters in the 30 states that require absentee ballots to be received by Election Day to be counted.
Last week, the Supreme Court quashed a Wisconsin court decision that would have given mail-in ballots an additional six days after Election Day to be counted.
"If you put your ballot in the mail yesterday or today and you live in a state where the deadline is tomorrow, your vote probably isn't going to get counted," said Steve Hutkins, a retired New York University professor who runs SavethePostOffice.com, a blog that monitors the USPS' delivery times, among other postal issues.
Pennsylvania won't start counting ballots until Election Day on November 3. But ballots will be counted through November 6. Ballots in Michigan must be received by 8 p.m. on November 3. Ballots in North Carolina must be postmarked by November 3, but will be accepted as late as 5 p.m. on November 12.
Typically, Hutkins added, first-class mail has an on-time delivery rate of above 90%, but service has been deteriorating since the Postal Service implemented operational changes under Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.
A delivery rate of about 80% is "ridiculous," Hutkins said. "That should never happen."
Historic low point
The 80% on-time rate could be a historic low, dipping below the 83% rate that was reached soon after DeJoy took over the Postal Service this summer, experts say. On an annual basis, the on-time delivery rate has exceeded 90% for the past four years, although it dipped to about 89% in 2015, according to a September report from the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan public-policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia.
The delays could portend problems for businesses and consumers awaiting deliveries of mailed prescriptions or important documents and checks, one expert said.
"From a practical standpoint this means a lot of important business mail — including checks and documents — are likely to be delayed," said Paul Steidler, senior fellow with the Lexington Institute. "Folks should pay their credit cards sooner than later to avoid penalty [and] late charges."
The Postal Service must take "extraordinary measures" to expedite the delivery of mail-in ballots, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the U.S. District Court in D.C. said in a legal order on Sunday. Among those measures is the judge's direction that the USPS use its Express Mail network to expedite ballots on November 2, November 3 and after Election Day to ensure the fastest possible delivery.
It's unclear how many mailed ballots are still circulating through the U.S. Postal Service, although this year's election has resulted in a record number of voters opting for mail-in ballots due to anxieties about the.
More than 56 million voters requested mail-in ballots this year, and about 27 million have been mailed so far, according to University of Florida professor Michael McDonald, who is tracking early voting. For its part, the USPS had recommended that voters post their mail-in ballots at least one week before Election Day, making October 27 the latest day, under their guidelines, to guarantee on-time delivery.
The Postal Service's declining performance, with President Donald Trump's attacks on mail-in voting and the emphasis on boosting its financial performance, highlight the challenges to the agency's' identity, experts say.
"The Postal Service is, first of all, a public service," said Christopher W. Shaw, a historian and author of "Preserving the People's Post Office." "My concern is that we are seeing people who are in charge at the USPS are not of that mindset that it is a public service first. They treat it like a business, but it's not a business. It doesn't exist to make money — it exists to serve the public."