The U.S. Postal Service has taken extraordinary measures to make sure ballots are delivered quickly and securely to elections officials by Tuesday. But amid staffing shortages and a diversion of resources, other mail is being delayed, and postal workers worry they won’t be able to catch up, especially with Christmas on the horizon.
The Postal Service has dramatically increased delivery and collection trips across the country, postal officials said. Monitors have been added to post offices across Philadelphia to ensure no ballots are left behind each day, and letter carriers worked full shifts over the weekend, instead of the normal part-time hours.
Postal Service employees are working overtime, and ballots are being hand-sorted and hand-delivered to boards of elections beyond the usual daily deliveries. On Monday and Tuesday, postal employees are emptying every blue collection box in the region twice, and again rushing ballots to local offices.
The result of those efforts is that ballots in Pennsylvania have largely been making it to and from voters without delay.
“We are working so hard to move heaven and Earth so that everybody’s ballots make it to the board of elections on time,” said Joe Rodgers, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Keystone 157.
But throwing time, staff, and resources into delivering ballots comes at a price: The on-time delivery of nonelection mail has plummeted. And the temporary surge in resources obscures the ongoing, long-term problems plaguing the Postal Service, as its new Postmaster General pursues a series of cost-cutting measures that experts say could continue to disrupt mail service long after Election Day.
From Oct. 26 to 29, about 94% of ballots reached Philadelphia-area elections offices within the one-to-three day delivery window for first-class mail, according to Postal Service data filed in U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia.
But the on-time percentage of non-ballot, first-class mail was only 53% from Oct. 26 to 28.
The mail delays come as coronavirus cases are peaking in the region, continuing to wipe out an already short-staffed Postal Service. Employees are working 12-hour days, with letter carriers walking routes past 9 p.m. and still bringing standard mail back to their offices. Package loads have skyrocketed as people stay home and order online, and parcels are piling “up to the ceiling” at Philadelphia’s processing center, said Nick Casselli, president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 89.
“It’s more than Christmas,” Casselli said of the packages. “We have so many parcels. I’ve never seen so many in my life and I’ve been here for 35 years.”
Some staffers worry whether the agency will recover from the current pileup once the election passes.
“I believe it is unsustainable,” said a Delaware County carrier of 30 years, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. “It feels like a ship that’s sinking here. I have 16 hours a day of work, and it seems like there’s no end in sight.”
Extraordinary measures to return ballots
This doesn’t mean every ballot has been delivered quickly. The average on-time delivery of ballots from Philadelphia-area elections offices to voters was about 87% across from Oct. 26 to 29, which is about seven points below average, according to the Washington Post. In Central Pennsylvania, only about 74% of ballots were returned to elections offices on-time during that period.
Justice Department lawyers representing the Postal Service cautioned that the daily data are not reliable, writing that election mail volumes in specific districts are often too small for the Postal Service to consider statistically significant. The agency did not report volume data.
“With a record number of people across the country voting by mail, the Postal Service’s number one priority between now and the November election is the secure, timely delivery of the nation’s Election Mail,” spokesperson Ray Daiutolo Sr. said in an email.
Still, processing plants nationally are prioritizing processing election mail ahead of everything else. Any ballots identified for an area outside of Philadelphia will be expedited to its destination, using Priority Mail Express if needed, the agency has said.
Every morning since Oct. 20, Rodgers, as head of the Philadelphia-area postal task force monitoring ballot collection, has hosted a virtual meeting with the task force representatives from all 28 post offices in the city. Rodgers asks whether any ballots have been at the office for more than 24 hours, he said, and so far, no such cases have been reported.
On Monday and Tuesday, no ballots will be sent to be processed at Philadelphia’s Lindbergh Boulevard facility, Rodgers said. All mail collected from the blue collection boxes will be sorted by hand, and any ballots will be postmarked and then delivered to the elections office.
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Rodgers also said a monitor goes through each office at the end of the day to ensure that no ballots are left over and that ballots are being postmarked. As of Saturday, letter carriers were to check every residential mailbox, regardless if they have mail to deliver to that house.
“It’s a joint effort,” said Rodgers. “Everyone knows what their mission is. This is the cradle of democracy and we are going to make sure everyone’s vote gets counted.”
The agency’s messaging could absolve some voters' worries, especially in Philadelphia, where residents watched their mail delivery deteriorate over the summer amid postal operational changes, an employee shortage, and a parcel boom. The changes sparked mass outcry and lawsuits, including in Pennsylvania, where a federal judge ordered in September that the changes be reversed.
Packages are piling up
Now, employees say that ballots are safe, but they believe the delays across other mail are worse than this summer.
The volume of campaign literature has been astronomical, said Laurence Love, an assistant clerk craft director who operates mail sorting machines at the Philadelphia plant. Numerous pallets filled with campaign mail are stacked up in the facility, unlikely to be delivered by tomorrow.
The court filings show that from Oct. 24 to 28, the on-time delivery of non-ballot election mail was about 1.2%.
Love said there are thousands of oversize parcels piling up in the facility, with not enough staff to hand-sort and process the growing numbers.
Between exhaustion, coronavirus cases, and quarantine, staffing shortages remain an issue across the agency. Love said last Monday, 19 clerks called out during one shift because they were so tired, and Casselli said that last week, upward of 50 coronavirus cases were reported among postal employees across the eastern region.
Casselli said once the election passes, resources will be diverted to controlling the parcel load. He said the Postal Service is actively hiring extra people to work during the peak parcel season between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Right now, though, “all efforts are toward getting the ballots where they need to go,” he said.