We mailed 64 letters, packages in battleground states to check on mail delays. Here’s what we found

Matt Wynn, USA TODAY
·7 min read

Two weeks before the election, there are signs that delays continue to plague the U.S. mail, a tracking effort by the USA TODAY Network and the University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism found.

Of 64 letters and packages sent short distances within battleground states since mid-September, 14 took longer than the U.S. Postal Service’s own three-day service standard for first-class local mail. Most of the problems arose in Michigan, although Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida each had at least one late arrival.

Eight of the shipments took a week or more to get to their cross-town destinations, including one letter that still has not arrived, according to the post office’s online tracking system. The missing letter was put in the mail two weeks ago, on Oct. 6.

Millions of people are likely to vote by mail this election year.
Millions of people are likely to vote by mail this election year.

Although the mailings were too small in number to determine whether widespread delays are occurring, the erratic results make it hard to know whether or not your ballot will arrive at the elections office by the legal deadline. Millions of people are likely to vote by mail this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, and most are registered Democrats.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said her office has spent all year preparing for contingency plans, including a slowdown in mail. The office installed more than 1,000 drop boxes across the state and set up 21 satellite offices for election needs in Detroit alone.

That massive intake apparatus "enables us to, today, two weeks out, recommend that people not use the mail," she said.

Responding to USA TODAY's findings, Benson said the delays "will certainly have an impact on our residents. Sometimes people only get mail two days a week. The impact of the slowdown extends far beyond the election. That's very real."

At least some of the operational problems that arose after the appointment in May of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy – who instituted cost-cutting measures – have persisted into the fall. DeJoy ordered the dismantling and deactivation of mail sorting machines, barred overtime and required carriers and trucks to start routes at certain times, regardless of whether the mail was ready, resulting in widespread slowdowns.

Quarterly on-time reports produced by the Postal Service show that the Detroit area has had one of the highest rates – 34% – of late mail in the country.

USA TODAY found how long the delay can be for letters that get misplaced or mishandled. Even if a tiny percentage of ballots were to get set back by a week or two, it could translate to thousands of discounted ballots.

Roundabout journeys

Certified mail carries a bar code and a tracking number that allow customers to check online each time and location where postal employees scan it into government computers and log its status.

USA TODAY Network reporters, in partnership with the University of Maryland's Howard Center for Investigative Reporting, mailed GPS units in swing states to measure mail efficiency and track its path.
USA TODAY Network reporters, in partnership with the University of Maryland's Howard Center for Investigative Reporting, mailed GPS units in swing states to measure mail efficiency and track its path.

In 38 of the letters mailed by the news network, reporters inserted GPS tracking devices in bubble-wrapped manila envelopes to paint a more detailed portrait of why delays occurred.

On Sept. 21, a reporter mailed a GPS unit from a post office in Bradenton, Florida, to a destination across town, 6 miles northeast.

GPS readings show the envelope went due north, 43 miles, to Tampa, where it stopped for the day.

From there, it traveled east, more than a third of the way across the state, to Lakeland.

Over the next five days, it went to Sebring, back to Lakeland, again to Tampa, then back to Bradenton. The package arrived at its destination on the Manatee River Sept. 28.

The next week, the reporter sent the GPS unit from the same location, addressed to the same recipient.

It made that trip in one day.

A package mailed from Bradenton, Fla., went far afield in its journey across town, records from a GPS tracker inside the envelope show. The trip took one week.
A package mailed from Bradenton, Fla., went far afield in its journey across town, records from a GPS tracker inside the envelope show. The trip took one week.
A second trip went much faster, despite having the same starting location, size of package and end destination.
A second trip went much faster, despite having the same starting location, size of package and end destination.

Marti Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service, said the agency is committed to and capable of handling the expected surge in ballots as the coronavirus crisis leads more people to vote by mail. She said the agency will give extra attention to what it can tell is election mail.

That attention will include expedited handling, extra deliveries and special pickups for mail that can be identified as a ballot, she said. She suggested voters get their ballots in early.

“Our general recommendation is that, as a common-sense measure, please mail completed ballots before Election Day, and at least one week prior to their individual state’s deadline. Some states may recommend allowing even more time for mailing completed ballots,” she said.

Michigan's delays

Reporters for USA TODAY and its network of newsrooms across the country mailed envelopes in seven states and 10 cities.

Envelopes were addressed to destinations within the same county, often no more than a few miles away. Certified letters with $4.10 each in postage were sent within greater Cincinnati, Columbus and Detroit. GPS units were mailed in seven cities in Wisconsin, Florida, Pennsylvania and Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, a competitive seat in a state that apportions electoral votes based on district-level balloting.

The envelopes were mailed from either home mailboxes, post offices or blue postal boxes. They were sent to a home address or post office box near the area’s election office, to approximate the path ballots would take.

Voters can drop off absentee ballots in boxes instead of using the mail in Detroit.
Voters can drop off absentee ballots in boxes instead of using the mail in Detroit.

No place fared worse in these mailings than Michigan, where six of 15 took a week or more to arrive.

Michigan voters have requested 2,852,000 absentee ballots – more than half the total votes cast in the state during the 2016 presidential election and 36% of all registered voters in the state.

Michigan voted for Obama in 2012, then swung for Trump in 2016.

Mail delays might not have been a big deal for Michigan. In September, a judge ruled that Michigan ballots had to be counted if they were postmarked by Nov. 2 and the post office delivered them to elections officials within two weeks of Election Day.

An appeals court overturned that ruling last week. Ballots must arrive by Nov. 3.

The slowest trip by any GPS device in the USA TODAY/Howard Center data was recorded as the package traveled across the northern Detroit suburb of Birmingham. A reporter dropped the package into a blue mailbox in front of a post office the afternoon of Sept. 28.

It sat in a distribution center for more than a week before finally being delivered Oct. 7.

More: How USA TODAY measures swing state mail leading up to the election and beyond

'Like somebody turned off a switch': Small businesses say USPS delays hit them hard

Michigan had among the worst on-time mail rates in the country this summer. Those delays came in the wake of changes by DeJoy, many of which have been reversed by court order.

Christina Schlitt, president of the Michigan League of Women Voters, said she was aware that the mail was slow during the summer but did not realize it’s still delayed.

She said it makes her all the more confident in the league’s advice to voters that they deliver absentee ballots to drop boxes or in person in the final two weeks of the election.

Questionable scans

To measure how long it took to deliver certified mail, USA TODAY compared the time of the post office’s initial scan with the date the agency’s tracking reported it delivered. That approach understates the size of the problem.

In one Ohio case, the post office didn’t scan a letter until five days after a reporter put the envelope in his outgoing mail. The online mail log for another letter lists just one event: the moment it was delivered.

The lack of consistent scanning raises questions about the reliability of Postal Service data that claims to measure on-time performance.

The Washington Post reported last week that postal employees scanned millions of packages with incorrect delivery-designation codes – claiming that a customer’s driveway was blocked or that the recipient was not home when the package never left the post office.

Some Postal Service errors in tracking have the opposite effect of dragging down on-time delivery statistics.

In the USA TODAY tracking project, the post office totally lost track of at least two certified letters. The online system lists both letters as en route weeks after reporters received them.

The letters each arrived in the mailbox a day late.

Contributing, from the USA TODAY Network: Danielle Delfin, Gary White, Dak Le, Wade Tatengelo, Erin Mansfield, Carrie Seidman, Mike Stucka, Mark Wert, Kim Bui, Josh Susong, Craig Harris, Teresa Boeckel, Jessica Boehm, Karina Bland, Michael Squires, Wyatt Buchanan, Carrie Waters, Doug Schneider, Renee Hickman, Patrick Marley, Brian Dickerson, Steven Pepple, Kristen Shamus, Christina Hall, Elissa Robinson, Elisha Anderson, Frank Witsil, Chris Ullery, Kevin Dittman, Laura Schulte, Scott Fisher, Alison Dirr, Sarah Hauer. From the Howard Center: Krishnan Vasudevan and Sean Mussenden

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Election 2020: Mail-in, absentee ballots could see long waits