Measuring vote-by-mail

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The slow-but-steady rise in the popularity of vote-by-mail that has played out in federal elections for the past 20-plus years is about to get a major boost, even as the U.S. Postal Service struggles with deliveries.

The promise of skipping long lines and crowded polling places looks pretty appealing in the midst of a pandemic. Some 39% of voters say they would like to vote by mail, according to a Pew Research Center survey over the summer. 

That would be nearly twice the rate of voting by mail as in 2016, according to the Census Bureau.

The crush of mail ballots would come at a time when mail delays, legislative inquiries and court decisions have plagued the Postal Service since early summer.

In the context of an election, on-time delivery matters: Missed deadlines are a major reason mail-in ballots are rejected, studies have found.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has accused President Donald Trump of attempting to “sabotage the election by manipulating the Postal Service to disenfranchise voters.”

With the stakes so high, USA TODAY and the University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism have been examining how slow mail service could alter the election. We talked to experts, ran some experiments and cooked up a plan to see how mail is delivered as we careen toward the Nov. 3 election.

Starting Sept. 21, reporters in six swing states and one swing congressional district began sending packages to addresses close to their local election offices. Some contained GPS units that show the path taken, while others were sent certified mail, with barcodes that postal workers scan along the way.

The plan is to mimic, as much as we can, how mailed ballots will move in the lead-up to Election Day.

Each week, we’ll rerun the experiment to see if delivery times stay the same, improve or get worse.

A summer slowdown

The effort follows a summer when the Postal Service changed its operations on numerous fronts.

Louis DeJoy, who became postmaster general in June, ordered the dismantling and deactivation of mail sorting machines, barred overtime and required carriers and trucks to start routes at certain times, regardless of whether the mail was ready.

Lawsuits brought by state attorneys general argued that DeJoy and Trump sought to kneecap the postal agency before the election. House and Senate committees held hearings to press DeJoy on why he implemented the policy changes.

By late summer, court injunctions had halted many of them.

Existing data sources give us some idea of how all this affected mail delivery.

The Associated Press, drawing on the Postal Service’s internal weekly performance data, found that many of the nation’s 68 postal districts missed the agency’s own goals for on-time delivery in huge numbers.

On-time mail deliveries in the democratic areas of Michigan fell to as low as 61% at the beginning of August, the AP found, and rose to around 80% by the end of the month, after many of DeJoy’s new policies were reversed. Meanwhile, a part of the state that leans more Republican overall performed at just over 90%.

A USA TODAY analysis of data from Shippo, which serves online retailers, supports the  Associated Press’ findings. The percentage of First-Class packages traveling 50 miles or fewer that were delayed rose from around 6% at the end of June to 8% at the end of July.

Local First-Class delays increased by a percentage point or more for packages sent from half of Shippo’s 10 largest markets. Daily statistics for all locations combined started showing a reduction in delays in late August, just as the AP’s Postal Service data showed an increase in on-time deliveries.

Another vendor, SnailWorks, provided data to The New York Times that also showed a summer slowdown in long-distance and local mail in four U.S. cities; theirs showed it persisting into September.

All of these data sources point to a summer slowdown in mail generally and e-commerce shipments specifically, in some cases even recently.

We set out to build on this knowledge. We wanted to capture what’s happening right now, with deliveries from residential senders to destinations just across town — a route taken by mail-in ballots — and across an array of states expected to decide the election.

While our experiment is not large enough to be a scientific sample, it is designed to give a consistent cross-section of mail in key neighborhoods, week by week.

Letter carriers load mail trucks for deliveries at a U.S. Postal Service facility in McLean, Va. on July 31, 2020. The success of the 2020 presidential election could come down to a most unlikely government agency: the U.S. Postal Service. Never before in U.S. history will so many people exercise the right on which their democracy hinges by marking a ballot at home and entrusting several layers of mostly unseen intermediaries to ensure their votes get accurately counted.

The game plan

We started by identifying reliably Democratic areas and reliably Republican areas in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Nebraska’s  2nd Congressional District, a competitive seat in a state that apportions electoral votes based on district-level balloting. These states and Nebraska’s  2nd are considered key to the presidential outcome.

A reporter will visit the same mailbox in these neighborhoods each week, dropping off a package addressed to a location near the local election office.

We’ll measure the time it takes for it to get where it’s going using two methods. 

We are sending 14 packages a week with GPS tracking units provided by the Howard Center at the University of Maryland. Those devices automatically report their location whenever a connection is available during their travels.

One drawback is that the GPS units, at 2.5 inches long and roughly  0.75 inches thick, make the packages heavier than a ballot. Post offices may handle them differently.

For that reason, we are also sending 36 ordinary letters by certified mail each week. That approach creates a bar code that gets scanned during major steps of a letter’s voyage through the mail system. The post office logs the information, which we can access. 

Grove Post Office

Scouting for slowdowns

Experts interviewed by USA TODAY said three types of slowdown could tip the election’s outcome: an across-the-board slowdown, one that strikes close to Election Day or delays that disproportionately hit areas that lean for one party or the other.

A general slowdown in mail efficiency would have a bigger impact on votes for Democrat Joe Biden than for Trump because Biden voters are far more likely to vote by mail, said Philip Rubio, a former letter carrier who is now a professor of history at North Carolina A&T State University. 

“If someone wanted to skew the system against Democrats, they wouldn’t have to target it with laser-like precision,” he said. “Just slow the mail down, do it that way.”

A Pew survey shows 58% of Biden voters plan to vote by mail, compared to 19% of Trump voters. 

A slowdown as Election Day nears would also disproportionately cut into mail-in votes for Biden, research suggests.

“The people who are less likely to send it in right away tend to be younger people, or for whatever reason, people who lean more Democratic,” said Anthony Fowler, associate professor in the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. 

While the USA TODAY/Howard Center experiment will look for any slowdown in mail delivery, Fowler said a broad slowdown of a day or two wouldn’t be clear evidence of “sabotage.” In fact, he said, it could be a natural outcome of an election with an unprecedented number of mailed ballots.

“Some amount of delay could easily be attributable to the post office being overwhelmed. If it’s a modest delay that wasn’t correlated to any political variable, that is not necessarily a major concern for democracy,” he said.

Both Rubio and Fowler agreed that a change in mail speed only in Democratic or only in Republican areas would be troubling. 

The best outcome would be no change at all in mail speeds.

Shakeout week

It’s a little soon to share findings. Our first week of shipments turned up some issues that needed to be addressed first.

We ran into problems with two GPS devices, which track their movements via cell towers or satellite connections, not reporting data. We moved one unit from Wausau, Wisconsin, to Milwaukee, where we hope service will be more abundant. Another unit in Arizona hasn’t reported its location since Sept. 17, despite being moved between multiple reporters.

Some shipments were successful, of course. These merit mention.

Of the 10 GPS devices that were mailed the week of Sept. 21, five arrived the next day. That’s faster than the two-day service that’s now standard for first-class mail.

Four other units were delivered in three days.

One unit, in Bradenton, Florida, took a full week to arrive. Ditto for certified mail sent along the same path. 

While that’s extreme, it’s not yet clear whether that’s the norm for that area. 

Over the coming weeks, we’ll find out.

Contributing, from the USA TODAY Network: Danielle Delfin, Gary White, Dak Le, Wade Tatengelo, Erin Mansfield, Carrie Seidman, Mike Stucka, Mark Wert, Kim Bui, Josh Susong, Craig Harris, Teresa Boeckel, Jessica Boehm, Karina Bland, Michael Squires, Wyatt Buchanan, Carrie Waters, Doug Schneider, Renee Hickman, Patrick Marley, Brian Dickerson, Steven Pepple, Kristen Shamus, Christina Hall, Elissa Robinson, Elisha Anderson, Frank Witsil, Chris Ullery, Kevin Dittman, Laura Schulte, Scott Fisher, Alison Dirr, Sarah Hauer. From the Howard Center: Krishnan Vasudevan and Sean Mussenden.

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