Our objective was to evaluate the Postal Service’s preparedness for processing international election mail, including military and diplomatic mail.
The Postal Service processes international election and political mail for eligible U.S. citizens throughout the world. Military and diplomatic members and their families or other U.S. citizens located in foreign countries can use or receive these types of mail. Election mail is any item mailed to, or from, authorized election officials that enables citizens to participate in the voting process. For example, local election offices in the U.S. send ballots or other election materials to international recipients and the international voters mail their completed election ballots back. Political mail is related campaign or messaging mail, and generally entails only outbound operations.
International election and political mail are typically processed at one of the five International Service Centers (ISC) which are located in New York, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. Processing operations for military and diplomatic election mail are co-located with Postal Service processing functions for other international mail (i.e., letters, parcels, periodicals, etc.). Most international military and diplomatic mail is processed through the Chicago facility, and it is estimated this facility will receive about 80 percent of inbound military mail ballots for the 2020 presidential election.
International political and election mail has distinct processing procedures. For example, U.S. election offices are expected to send out international absentee ballots at least 45 days prior to a federal election (45 days prior to the federal election would be September 18, 2020, during this election cycle). Also, certain inbound military election ballots qualify for Express Mail service based on a partnership between the Postal Service and Department of Defense, while other international or diplomatic election mail is processed in the normal international mail stream.
The novel coronavirus disease outbreak (COVID-19) pandemic significantly impacted international mail service. For example, the Postal Service began suspending mail service to 22 countries in April 2020, and mail to some countries was still suspended as of August 2020. The Postal Service continues to monitor foreign postal operations and transportation for service impacts, including foreign postal operator service suspensions (embargo).
The Postal Service implemented a series of nationwide initiatives in July 2020 to improve operational efficiency. These efforts included a focus on reducing late and extra transportation trips and aligning workhours to mail volume workload. In addition, the Postal Service has been removing mail processing equipment since 2015 as a result of decreased mail volume. The Postal Service also implemented an organizational realignment in August 2020, which included moving the ISC reporting structure from the respective Areas to Headquarters.
The Postal Service’s preparedness for processing international election mail, including military and diplomatic mail, is at risk based on mail processing delays at the Chicago ISC. Operations at the Chicago ISC were significantly impacted beginning in late March 2020 primarily due to the COVID-19 outbreak and delays remained into mid-August, the time of our most recent observations at the facility. These delays threaten the facility’s overall ability to timely process military, diplomatic, and other international election mail.
Our analysis of Postal Service data for all international mail showed over 137,000 delayed pieces – both inbound to and outbound from – the Chicago ISC in mid-August, broken down as follows:
- Inbound: An estimated 38,000 pieces destined for U.S. domestic delivery were waiting at the ISC for additional handling and processing. These pieces were staged for processing, sometimes outside the facility due to the backlog, resulting in damaged labels and packaging. Postal Service data showed containers were delayed up to 24 days (as of August 18, 2020).
- Outbound: An estimated 99,000 pieces of outbound mail, including nearly 11,000 parcels originally destined for foreign countries, could not be processed due to either a lack of outbound air transportation or ongoing embargo by the foreign country. Postal Service data showed containers were delayed up to 17 days (as of August 18, 2020).
These delays stemmed primarily from staffing shortages, outbound mail restrictions, presentation and screening delays, and transportation-related delays resulting from the COVID-19-pandemic, as follows:
- Staffing shortages: Staff availability averaged about 67 percent between March 1 and August 22, 2020. The Postal Service hired over 500 temporary, supplemental staff beginning in mid-April 2020. However, nearly half of the supplemental staff were no longer on the complement rolls as of early August due to a high attrition rate. Further, the supplemental staffing agreements between the Postal Service and employee unions expires in late September 2020. Efforts in July 2020 to reduce overtime exacerbated these staffing shortages. These collective challenges made it difficult to fully address the inbound and outbound mail delays.
- Outbound mail challenges and restrictions: Outbound international mail that could not be sent due to a lack of available air transportation or foreign postal operator service suspension (embargo) resulted in a significant backlog of mail pieces and containers in the facility. Chicago ISC staff had to identify and segregate these pieces and perform additional handling and processing to determine whether the pieces would be returned to sender or sent to other Postal Service facilities with available transportation.
- Presentation and screening delays: Postal Service data showed about 45,000 parcels awaiting Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reviews in mid-August 2020, with some Express Mail containers not being tendered to CBP for two weeks. Postal Service officials stated they have coordinated with CBP to address some of these delays, and CBP responded with additional staff and modifications to its screening operations.
- Transportation-related delays: Mail backlogs at the Chicago ISC substantially hindered the airlines from timely tendering mail, as there was limited space available at the ISC to accept the inbound containers from the airlines and cargo handlers. While Postal Service staff worked to address these and other issues with the airlines and cargo handlers, delays remained. For example, in mid-August, the Postal Service had yet to receive containers from flights that landed 6-weeks prior (early July 2020).
We also determined that, as of mid-August, the Postal Service did not have an active system for tracking and reporting on eligible military, diplomatic, and other international election ballots. Postal Service officials stated they plan to leverage existing tracking and reporting capabilities in the Product Tracking and Reporting system via the Intelligent Mail barcodes. System modification testing to specifically track and report on election ballots, however, had not yet been completed. Testing was planned for early September 2020 at each ISC and other Postal Service facilities that could accept inbound ballots. Accurately tracking and reporting on eligible international election ballots would provide the Postal Service key visibility into the number of international election ballots it receives. This data would also provide insight on the respective flows and timing of each piece —information that would be valuable for visibility into ballot processing and handling.
While finalizing this report for publication, we observed operations at the Chicago ISC on September 29, 2020, as part of another ongoing project. International mail operations appeared significantly improved from our August 2020 observations. Specifically, the workroom floor was visibly clearer of inbound and outbound mail, as was the holding area for mail going into and out of CBP. These operational improvements were consistent with the implementation of Recommendations 1 and 2, as noted below.
We recommend management:
- Immediately develop and implement a Short-Term Operating Plan, including strategies, milestones, and responsibilities, to process the mail inventory backlog and ensure the timely processing and handling of international outbound and inbound election mail.
- Immediately develop and implement a Staffing Contingency Plan with strategies and responsibilities for ensuring the sufficient availability of staff for the upcoming election cycle, including options in case supplemental staff levels would be limited after the expiration of the current agreements in September 2020.
- Develop and implement rapid testing timeframes and procedures for tracking and reporting on eligible inbound election ballots at each of the ISCs and other facilities that could accept international election mail.