Officials from the U.S. Postal Service insist that the agency efficiently and securely delivered mail ballots for Election Day, despite troubling data for the Philadelphia region that the service made public Wednesday.

The officials acknowledged that the information the service filed to a federal judge in Washington paints a dire picture of Philadelphia’s on-time mail ballot return on Election Day. But they said the data lacked context and were an inaccurate representation of the speed at which mail ballots are being returned.

The USPS reported that its staff in the Philadelphia metropolitan area delivered more than 94% of mail ballots to election officials within three days the week before the election.

The filing Wednesday morning shows that on Nov. 3, the Philadelphia metro’s on-time percentage dropped to about 67%.

But it’s likely that these statistics seem worse than they actually are, the officials said. To quickly get ballots to election officials this week, the service bypassed its processing center in Southwest Philadelphia. Instead, employees in local post offices manually sorted and postmarked the ballot envelopes, then immediately delivered them to boards of elections the same day, according to postal officials.

The USPS Philadelphia Processing and Distribution Center on Lindbergh Blvd in Philadelphia, Pa.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
The USPS Philadelphia Processing and Distribution Center on Lindbergh Blvd in Philadelphia, Pa.

However, this meant those ballots were likely scanned in, but never scanned out, since they bypassed the rest of the system. Or as the service put it, the “local turnaround” "expedites delivery, but is not captured in service performance data.”

Additionally, given the extraordinary measures the Postal Service instituted this week to ensure the timely return of ballots, the stark drop-off from last week to Tuesday doesn’t appear to add up. Employees at the Southwest Philadelphia said that Postal Inspectors had monitored daily ballot returns for the last week.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan of the District of Columbia put the Postal Service under pressure Tuesday after voting-rights activists cited alarming data indicating that 300,523 mail ballots had been scanned into the Postal Service’s system, but never scanned out, implying that the ballots had been lost. Sullivan, who has been critical of the agency, ordered officials to sweep facilities in Philadelphia, central Pennsylvania, and 10 other locales across the country to make sure that ballots had been delivered. He set a deadline of 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.

But the Postal Service disregarded the order, saying it would stick to its own inspection schedule and finish facility sweeps by 8 p.m.

By the end of the day, the USPS found only 13 delayed ballots nationwide after sweeping the 220 postal facilities, a disparate outcome from the Tuesday numbers, according to Wednesday’s filing.

The ballots were all found in Pennsylvania: three in Johnstown and 10 in Lancaster, according to testimony from Daniel Brubaker of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. The ballots were immediately delivered.

ERIE, PA - NOVEMBER 3: Volunteers open and sort mail-in ballots while poll watchers observe.
Robert Frank / For the Inquirer
ERIE, PA - NOVEMBER 3: Volunteers open and sort mail-in ballots while poll watchers observe.

The 300,000 “missing” ballots were likely not missing at all, a statistically misleading artifact of the manual delivery protocol the Postal Service instituted. Postal employees also testified that staff visual inspections were more accurate than the scanners.

“The most reliable way to tell that a facility is clear of ballots is the ‘all clear’ process rather than comparing entry and exit scans,” the filing quoted Kevin Bray, 26-year USPS operations specialist, as saying.

As part of what the service called its “extraordinary measures” to ensure ballot delivery ahead of Election Day, Postal Inspectors conducted daily sweeps of postal facilities in the days leading up to Nov. 3. Additional inspectors were put on duty in 27 postal facilities around the country, including Philadelphia, for about a week.

The inspectors “search equipment, trailers, recyclable dumpsters, staging areas, empty equipment areas, bathrooms, break rooms, locker rooms, stock rooms, offices, closets,” and any other areas for election mail, according to the court filing.

Mail carriers also emptied all blue collection boxes twice on Nov. 2 and 3 so that any ballots inside could be rushed to the local elections office. The service also paid heavy overtime, in part so mail carriers could check every residential mailbox for outgoing mail, even if they had no mail to deliver to the house.