Our objective was to evaluate the U.S. Postal Service’s service performance of Election and Political Mail during the November 2020 general election. We also evaluated the handling of mail for the Georgia Senate runoff election held on January 5, 2021.
Election Mail is any mailpiece that an authorized election official creates for voters participating in the election process and includes ballots and voter registration materials. Political Mail is any mailpiece created by a registered political candidate, a campaign committee, or committee of a political party for political campaign purposes.
Depending on the preference of the customer, Election and Political Mail can be sent as either First‑Class Mail, which typically takes 2 to 5 days to be delivered, or Marketing Mail, which typically takes 3 to 10 days to be delivered. However, ballots returned by voters are generally sent as First‑Class Mail. While Marketing Mail has longer processing and delivery timeframes, it costs the customer less than First‑Class Mail. Historically, as election day draws nearer, the Postal Service has processed Election Mail in line with First‑Class Mail delivery standards, even if it was sent as Marketing Mail.
The Postal Service plays a vital role in the American democratic process and this role continues to grow as the volume of Election and Political Mail increases. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an increase in the number of Americans who voted by mail in the 2020 general election. According to the U.S. Elections Project, there were over 159.6 million ballots counted in the 2020 general election. The Postal Service processed and delivered at least 135 million identifiable ballots going to and coming from voters from September 1 through November 3, 2020. It is important to note that election boards individually determine whether to integrate the use of barcodes in their mailing processes and that the Postal Service can currently only track the performance of processed mailpieces (i.e., sorted, transported, and delivered) if they have barcode mail tracking technology and receive required processing scans. The total number of ballots processed without a barcode is unknown.
We evaluated the Postal Service’s performance leading up to and during the November 2020 general election. To do so, in October, we conducted unannounced site visits at 102 processing plants and 1,710 delivery/retail units, covering all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. During the week of the general election, we conducted daily, announced site visits at 27 processing plants and 56 delivery/retail units. We also observed international Election Mail operations at the Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami International Service Centers (ISC) during the 2020 general election and Georgia Senate runoff election. Due to different processing procedures for international ballots, we will issue a separate report on the ISCs.
The Postal Service prioritized processing of Election Mail during the 2020 general election, significantly improving timeliness over the 2018 mid-term election even with significantly increased volumes of Election Mail in the mailstream. Although timeliness was slightly below goals, proper handling and timely delivery of all Election Mail, especially ballots, was the number one priority of the Postal Service. The Postal Service also leveraged high-cost efforts such as extra transportation and overtime to improve delivery performance. Further, while our site visits did identify some delayed Election Mail and compliance issues, the Postal Service took immediate corrective actions to address the identified issues. However, we did find opportunities for the Postal Service to increase the volume of ballots included in service performance and improve its internal communication on Election Mail guidance and processes.
Additional Resources and Extraordinary Measures Implemented by the Postal Service
On August 18, 2020, the Postmaster General (PMG) reiterated the Postal Service’s critical role and commitment to delivering Election Mail, and stated that on October 1, 2020, the Postal Service would engage standby resources in all areas of operations, including transportation, to satisfy any unforeseen demand related to Election Mail. Additionally, the PMG expanded the Election Mail Task Force to include leaders of the postal unions and management associations to ensure that election officials and voters are well informed and fully supported by the Postal Service.
Further, on August 21, 2020, the Postal Service Board of Governors established a bipartisan Election Mail Committee to oversee the Postal Service’s support of the mail-in voting process.
On September 21, 2020, a federal court required the Postal Service to implement several actions on September 25, 2020. This included treating all Election Mail as First‑Class Mail as capacity allows, even if sent as Marketing Mail; pre-approving all overtime from October 26 through November 6, 2020; and encouraging extra transportation for prompt delivery of Election Mail. Even though these requirements were set forth in the court order, the Postal Service has historically processed Election Mail in line with First‑Class Mail delivery standards as election day draws nearer and implemented extraordinary measures such as overtime and extra transportation as necessary.
On September 25, 2020, the Postal Service issued a directive authorizing and instructing the use of additional resources across operations, such as extra transportation and overtime, to ensure the timely processing, transportation, and delivery of Election Mail.
Lastly, on October 26, 2020, the Postal Service implemented extraordinary measures to accelerate the delivery of ballots to ensure they were included in the election process. This included expedited delivery of ballots through Express Mail and postmarking and sorting ballots for local delivery at delivery units, rather than sending them to mail processing facilities.
We found overall extra transportation trips increased by 35.1 percent and overtime associated with mail processing, delivery, and customer service increased by 29.8 percent from September to October 2020.
Ballots Not Measured in Service Performance
The Postal Service encouraged election officials to take advantage of its barcode tracking capabilities to increase the electronic visibility of ballots in the mailstream and to assist in the processing and delivery of ballots. However, the Postal Service was only able to measure service performance for 71.5 million (or 52.9 percent) of the 135 million identifiable ballots in Postal Service data. This occurred, in part, because the Postal Service can measure service performance on ballots going to voters only if they are sent full-service (i.e., ballots have a unique barcode) and receive necessary processing scans to provide end-to-end visibility into the mailstream.
Specifically, about 43.5 million ballots were sent to voters without unique barcodes and thus were excluded from measurement. An additional 20.3 million ballots sent as full-service to voters, were excluded because they did not comply with business rules or were missing key scan data to be included in service performance measurement.
Mailpieces can be excluded from service performance measurement because of mailer or Postal Service issues. While the Postal Service tracks reasons why full-service mailpieces are excluded from service performance measurement, they do not track them specifically for ballots. Therefore, they could not provide reasons why these full-service ballots were excluded from service performance measurement.
Service Performance of Election and Political Mail, and Ballots Delivered After Election
From September 1 through November 3, 2020, the Postal Service processed almost 134 million Election Mail pieces included in service performance measurement (mailpieces with barcode mail tracking technology that received required processing scans for measuring performance) and over 1.6 billion Political Mail pieces included in service performance measurement. Election Mail was processed in time to meet its service standard 93.8 percent of the time, an increase of about 11 percentage points for Election Mail processed from the same time period in 2018. The on-time goal for Election Mail, generally sent as First‑Class Mail, is 96 percent. While Election Mail processed on time did not meet this goal, it exceeded all other First‑Class Mail processed on time by 5.6 percentage points, showing prioritization of this mail. Further, the Postal Service has not met its First‑Class Mail service goal in five years.
Conversely, identifiable and measurable Political Mail (e.g., advertisements for political candidates) was processed in time to meet its service standard 91.9 percent of the time, a decrease of about 3 percentage points from the same time period in 2018. Political Mail is generally sent as Marketing Mail, which has an on-time goal of 91.8 percent.
According to the Postal Service, 28,172 ballots were sent to voters from election offices within 4 days of the election. Sending out ballots this late does not typically provide the Postal Service the required time to process, transport, and deliver the ballots within the First‑Class Mail service standard of 2 to 5 days. However, due to extraordinary measures implemented by the Postal Service, over 94 percent of those ballots were delivered to voters on or before election day. Only 1,567 ballots were delivered to voters after the election, 1,548 of which were still delivered within service standards. During the week of the general election, 98.1 percent of identifiable ballots were processed in time to meet its service standard.
During the month of October 2020, we conducted observations at processing facilities and delivery units across the country to determine if the Postal Service was processing and delivering Election Mail timely and complying with election procedures. While the majority of Election Mail observed was processed and delivered timely, we did identify issues with mail processing facilities and delivery/retail units complying with election procedures such as not conducting daily all‑clear checks of Election Mail or postmarking all ballots as required. Some facilities had more than one compliance issue.
We identified compliance issues during 30 (or 29 percent) of the 102 mail processing facility observations, including:
- Election Mail pieces committed for delivery that day but remaining at the facility. This occurred during 21 observations and totaled 17,285 delayed mailpieces. Once identified, the Postal Service expedited the processing of the delayed mailpieces, and all were likely delivered by election day.
- Facilities not completing daily all-clear checks of Election Mail during seven observations.
- Facilities not ensuring all ballots were postmarked during two observations.
- Facilities not having an Election/Political Mail staging area during three observations.
- We identified compliance issues during 234 (or about 14 percent) of the 1,710 delivery/retail unit observations, including:
- Election Mail pieces committed for delivery that day but remaining at the unit. This occurred during 58 observations and totaled 25,911 delayed mailpieces. Once identified, the Postal Service expedited the delivery of the delayed mailpieces, and all were likely delivered by election day.
- Units not completing daily all-clear checks of Election Mail during 103 observations. The units were required to complete a daytime and evening all-clear certification, but the Postal Service system only showed the time of the last certification entered for the day. While it is possible all-clear checks could have been completed at these units after our visit, there was no Postal Service record to verify the all-clear checks occurred.
- Unit management not knowing or understanding Postal Service policy by saying they would not postmark a ballot, if a customer specifically requested it when mailing their ballot, during 67 observations.
- Units not completing an Election/Political Mail log during 28 observations.
During the week of the election (November 2 through November 4, 2020), we conducted 81 mail processing observations at 27 facilities and 169 delivery/retail unit observations at 56 units, for a total of 250 observations. While compliance issues still existed, we only identified 760 delayed Election Mail mailpieces, all of which were delivered to election offices on or before election day.
We provided daily and weekly updates to the Postal Service management, Board of Governors, and Congress on the results of our observations, and the Postal Service took immediate corrective action to address the issues identified.
While Postal Service management responded to challenges quickly, we did note that communication of Election Mail guidance and process changes did not always reach local facility management quickly and effectively. For example, local facility and unit management was not always aware of what time daily all‑clears had to be completed. Specifically, before the election, the Postal Service changed delivery/retail unit daily all-clear procedures to a two-phase certification. The first phase of certification was required by 2 p.m., which is after carriers left for delivery, while the second phase was required after carriers returned for the day. Some delivery unit managers were certifying the all-clear of Election Mail prior to carriers leaving for the day. We reviewed nationwide data on daily all-clear certifications and found 120,317 delivery/retail unit all-clear certifications (or 15 percent of all certifications) were submitted before 8 a.m., indicating they were not completed according to policy. Further, some delivery/retail unit managers were not aware that the certification had to be completed in two phases.
By not always following Election Mail processes and without quick and effective communication, the Postal Service risked delaying Election Mail.
We conducted additional observations of mail processing facilities and delivery/retail units during the Georgia Senate runoff election. Overall, we continued to see similar compliance issues (e.g., lack of understanding of requirements for all-clears and postmarking ballots) and causes for delayed Election Mail that we previously identified during the general election. See Appendix B for the results of our Georgia Senate runoff election observations.
Actions Implemented from Prior Audit Recommendations
In our recent Processing Readiness of Election and Political Mail During the 2020 General Elections audit (Report Number 20-225-R20, dated August 31, 2020), we identified and recommended the Postal Service resolve compliance issues related to facilities not completing daily all-clear checks, daily readiness self-audits, and maintaining logs for Election and Political Mail. These recommendations were closed based on actions from management. We also recommended the Postal Service work toward creating a separate, simplified mail product exclusively for Election Mail that would support uniform mail processing, including mandatory mailpiece tracking and proper mailpiece design. The Postal Service is currently reviewing implementation of this recommendation, and it remains open. It would not have been feasible for the Postal Service to implement a new mail product for the 2020 general election given the short timeframe before the election.
We followed up on those recommendations in this audit to determine whether the Postal Service’s corrective actions were effective. During our observations, despite recent efforts by the Postal Service to communicate and educate election officials and mailers, we continued to note issues with mailpiece design, outdated addresses, and mail forwarding issues that further highlight the need for the Postal Service to create a separate, simplified mail product exclusively for Election Mail. We also found the Postal Service had improved compliance with completing the daily self-audit checklist and Election and Political Mail logs. However, facilities still did not always complete timely and accurate daily all-clears of Election Mail certifications and further corrective action should be taken.
We recommended management:
- Work with mailers of Election Mail to identify why full-service ballots from the 2020 general election were excluded from service performance measurement and develop an action plan with timelines to address each cause to increase the number of ballots in measurement.
- Continue to educate state and local election officials on mailing deadlines for request and receipt of ballots that accounts for the Postal Service’s time to process, transport, and deliver mail.
- Issue clear guidance in writing and via stand-up talks ahead of the next election for daily all-clear certifications, and ensure Election Mail processes and policies are communicated quickly, clearly, and directly to all levels of management.
- Create a way to capture the separate morning and evening daily all-clear certifications for delivery units to ensure units are completing both as required.
- Conduct a post-election review to identify lessons learned and use as a reference in future elections.