Much has been said and written in recent weeks about making a voting plan for the Nov. 3 general election — and about whether the U.S. Postal Service is ready to process and deliver election mail in time for an expected onslaught of mail-in and absentee ballots.
Now the Postal Service's Office of Inspector General has weighed with a new report that says the Postal Service is not ready enough — repeat, not ready — to handle the expected deluge of mail-in and absentee ballot deliveries and returns for the 2020 election.
In an audit of election mail processing dated Aug. 31, the agency listed several potential trouble spots, including ballots mailed without bar codes used for tracking; ballot mailer designs that impede processing; election and political mail sent too close to Election Day for the mail service to deliver it on time; postmark requirements for ballots, and outdated voter addresses.
"Resolving these issues will require higher level partnerships and cooperation between the Postal Service and various state officials, including secretaries of state and state election boards," the office said in a news release about the audit. "Timely delivery of Election and Political Mail is necessary to ensure the integrity of the U.S. election process."
In other words, the Postal Service, already under the gun for dismantling some of its own infrastructure for timely mail delivery, now is passing the blame for expected failure to the states and their election officials. And not without some good reasons (see Tennessee below).
What this means is we could be looking at a double whammy of trouble ahead — especially with a historic high of nearly 180 million COVID-19 pandemic-weary Americans eligible to cast mail-in or absentee ballots this year.
In at least 18 states and Washington, D.C., officials — sometimes under court order — have eased or expanded access to mail ballots during the pandemic.
But in late July, Americans grew alarmed to see about 700 iconic blue street-side mailboxes unbolted from sidewalks and hauled away. At the same time, under Trump's new Postmaster General, the Postal Service unbolted and removed mail-sorting machines, banned postal worker overtime, reduced hours at some post offices and eliminated some postal trips — all under the guise of improved efficiency.
On July 29, U.S. Postal Service General Counsel Thomas J. Marshall wrote election officials in 46 states — including Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama — that the agency couldn't guarantee voters their mail-in ballots will arrive in time to be counted.
The letter to Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett cautioned that Tennessee election law timelines for mail-in ballots appear "incompatible" with both the Postal Service's delivery standards and its recommended time frame to ensure on-time delivery.
Since then, Tennessee, which requires eligible voters to provide an excuse for why they cannot vote in person, has been ordered by a Davidson County Judge to include on its absentee ballot request form an allowance for those with underlying conditions that may make them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk if they do contract it. The newly worded excuse also would apply to caretakers of those higher risk voters.
It was at least the third Tennessee ruling in recent months over absentee ballots. The first required all voters requesting absentee ballots because of pandemic fears to be granted them — without any other needed excuse. The state fought that ruling, and a second one from the Tennessee Supreme Court in early August reversed it but included a concession from the state that it would approve COVID-19 concern requests from persons with added susceptibilities, like cancer or other specified illnesses.
But then the state removed mentions of COVID-19 from its absentee ballot application altogether, prompting voter confusion and leading to the newest ruling. A state spokesperson has accused the judge of "legislating from the bench."
Georgia has allowed no-excuse absentee voting for all registered voters since 2005, and a federal judge on Monday extended the deadline for absentee ballots to be returned in the Peach State. The judge ruled that ballots must be counted if postmarked by Election Day and delivered up to three days afterward. The ruling invalidates Georgia's requirement that ballots be received at county election offices by 7 p.m. on Election Day and came after primary election officials disqualified at least 8,495 "late" absentee ballots.
The new Georgia ruling will likely result in tens of thousands of ballots being counted after Nov. 3 — ballots that would have otherwise been rejected, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. That's enough ballots to swing close elections. The Georgia Secretary of State has vowed to appeal.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill in July announced that any registered Alabama voter will be able to vote absentee this year.
No matter who's most to blame for heeding Donald Trump's push to thwart mail-in and absentee voting, there's good evidence for concern.
And more than enough evidence that we all need a plan. If you need to vote absentee, apply today and return the ballot as soon as possible.