Election mail: We sent 193 shipments, and here's what we learned

Matt Wynn and Mike Stucka, USA TODAY
A person drops off an application for a mail-in ballot in Omaha, Neb., on Aug. 18.
A person drops off an application for a mail-in ballot in Omaha, Neb., on Aug. 18.

After seven weeks and sending 193 pieces of mail short distances, it finally happened: a perfect week of on-time mail delivery.

Out of 20 packages sent the week of Election Day in six states, not a single one took more than three days to reach its destination – the U.S. Postal Service’s benchmark for delivery of local mail.

It was the first time that happened in the course of the USA TODAY Network’s effort to track mail delivery times across the nation in the lead-up to the presidential election. The project was a collaboration with the University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism.

By the end of the project, 22 packages (11%) took longer than three days to arrive at their destination. Thirteen of those long trips took place in Michigan, meaning more than a quarter of all packages mailed by reporters in the state arrived late.

The Postal Service declined to speculate on what could have caused deliveries to speed up after weeks of delays.

Kristin Seaver, chief retail and delivery officer for the Postal Service, noted the huge volume and quick turnaround of mail ballots during election season. She said the agency delivered 135 million ballots – counting inbound and outbound – with an average 2.5-day turnaround and made special effort to deliver identifiable ballots as quickly as possible.

It’s possible the focus on ballots in the weeks leading up to the election led to slower turnaround for the news network’s mailings, which plainly did not contain ballots.

Ballots arriving too late to be counted could affect election results. Delaware had 163,589 mail ballots returned for counting. Eight were rejected for a missing signature on the envelope, and 355 mail ballots were rejected because they arrived after the deadline.

Workers process mail-in and absentee ballots on Nov. 4 in West Chester, Pa.
Workers process mail-in and absentee ballots on Nov. 4 in West Chester, Pa.

The only hiccup in delivery during election week came when a USA TODAY Network package was mailed in Green Bay, Wisconsin. That package, like the bulk of those sent by the news organization, was sent as certified mail. Such mail carries bar codes and tracking numbers that allow customers to check online for each time and location where postal employees log a package’s status.

The post office never logged the Green Bay envelope as having been delivered, but the recipient confirmed to a reporter that it arrived one day after it was shipped.

Several letters throughout the effort were similarly never logged as delivered, despite arriving at their destination.

In Florida, the Postal Service’s failure to record deliveries by scanning ballot envelopes fueled concerns that ballots had not been counted – when really they had.

USA TODAY’s mail project started in mid-September. Dozens of reporters sent a mix of certified mail and packages containing GPS units to cross-county locations.

The intent was to mimic, as closely as possible, the path that ballots would take during what turned out to be a heavily mail-reliant election.

More than 65 million ballots were cast by mail this election season.

Reporters sent packages in the swing states of Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, Pennsylvania and Nebraska’s 2nd District.

In September and October, those mailings revealed circuitous routes and packages that sat in distribution centers for more than a week before getting delivered. Some packages took more than two weeks to arrive at their destination. Nebraska and Wisconsin were the only states without any delays.

There were no such problems during election week.

The week after the election, things still looked good. One package took a week to arrive at its downtown Phoenix destination. It was the only November delivery that took more than three days.

Contributing, from the USA TODAY Network: Pat Beall, Danielle Delfin, Gary White, Dak Le, Wade Tatengelo, Erin Mansfield, Carrie Seidman, 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: Mail ballots: Michigan had highest rate of delayed deliveries