In a time where almost everything is deemed unprecedented, the 2020 presidential election is no exception. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a surge in mail-in voting as Americans sought to avoid in-person contact at the polls in the name of health and safety. Mailing in votes rather than risking exposure by waiting in line on election day meant that the election was no longer largely confined to a single day and instead spanned the course of several weeks.
The postal traffic this election cycle was heavier than ever before, and by the end of October a record 50 million Americans had already cast their votes through mail-in ballots. According to the United States Elections Project, this election was projected to yield the highest voter turnout in the last hundred years, with an uptick in reminders to vote flooding social media platforms, television commercials, and other advertisements across the country. But the surge in mail-in voting brought many challenges for the United States Postal Service (USPS) as it struggled to adjust to the increased demand for mail processing services.
At the end of August, the USPS Office of Inspector General (OIG) released an Audit Report evaluating USPS’ readiness and ability to timely process election mail. In the report, OIG identified several concerns with USPS’s ballot processing capabilities and made respective recommendations, but it will be difficult to measure how effective those recommendations will be for the current election cycle. In Glenn Fine’s “Seven Principles of Highly Effective Inspectors General,” two pillars of effectiveness are providing potential solutions and striving for timeliness.
OIG was successful in providing potential solutions to the problems it identified, but it missed the mark in terms of timeliness. For instance, OIG found that the design, barcodes, and postmarks used for election mail were inconsistent from state to state, making it difficult for USPS to accurately track and process ballots. In the US, there is no uniform requirement for barcodes on election mail even though USPS is unable to track ballot envelopes that lack this feature. To combat this issue, OIG recommended that USPS create a unique, uniform product exclusively used for election mail and made with the proper design that allows for accurate and timely processing. While this is an innovative solution that would provide measurable results, the recommendation was made too close to the 2020 general election to be implemented. Making a suggestion that will not yield results for at least another four years greatly undermines OIG’s effectiveness and leaves much to be desired from an oversight perspective.
OIG identified another flaw in USPS’s ability to timely process election mail due to ballots being dispatched to voters too close to the election. For votes to be cast and counted on time, it is recommended that ballots be mailed to voters at least fifteen days in advance of the election. However, forty-eight states and D.C. currently have absentee ballot request deadlines that are within fifteen days of November 3d. Election mail distributed to voters and subsequently mailed back that close to the election leaves USPS with insufficient time to process the ballots, resulting in many of those votes going uncounted and jeopardizing election integrity.
To this point, OIG recommended that USPS develop clear communication and guidelines between local election boards and Secretary of State offices so that ballots are sent and received with ample time for processing. The mail-in and absentee ballot request deadlines are set by the individual jurisdictions and therefore are outside of USPS control–-in theory. However, OIG was effective in recognizing that this is a problem that USPS must be proactive in addressing and remedying in order to better serve American voters across the board.
In the face of one of the most controversial presidential elections in American history, OIG performed a thorough and informative audit of USPS capabilities. The recommendations made by OIG were specific, well thought-out, and measurable, but unfortunately our opportunity to measure the results will have to wait. Glenn Fine’s “Seven Additional Principles of Highly Effective Inspectors General” highlights the importance of following up on recommendations and communicating regularly.
OIG can provide effective oversight and protect the integrity of future elections by continuing to monitor USPS progress in implementing the recommended operational changes and best practices. Following up to ensure oversight recommendations are being implemented is especially important for OIG at a time when USPS is under heavy scrutiny and the president is very vocal in questioning election legitimacy. The voting process is an integral part of American democracy that will need increased attention as we continue to adapt to changing circumstances as a result of COVID-19.