In the opinion of many people, businesses, and organizations, 2020 was a terrible year – and for good reason.
For the Postal Service, it was one that will not be remembered fondly. The pandemic impacted USPS employees, severely suppressed the mailing activity of many businesses, and drove an unforeseen explosion of online shopping (and shipping). 2020 was also an election year during which voting by mail became key to the election process and the focus of politically inspired charges that the USPS was somehow subverting it.
After election day, most of the dust settled, life usually returned to pre-election (but not pre-pandemic) normalcy, and circumstances enabled a look back at how well the USPS did in handling election-related volume. Statistically, it seems to have done reasonably well. Here are some factoids:
• The Postal Service delivered approximately 4.6 billion pieces of election and political mail during the national elections, including the primaries – 114% above the mail volume of the 2016 election cycle. This included:
• 4 billion pieces of political mail
• 610 million pieces of election mail
• More than 135 million identifiable ballots to and from voters
• On average, the USPS delivered ballots:
• From election officials to voters in 2.1 days
• From voters to election officials in 1.6 days
• 97.9% of ballots were delivered from voters to election officials within three days
• 99.7% of ballots were delivered from voters to election officials within five days
Ideally, the movement of election mail would have been faster, with 99%+ reaching the voter (or election officials) within only a day or two. Also ideally, any surge of interest in vote-by-mail would have occurred earlier than a few months before a national election; more time would have been available to educate election officials about the practicalities of vote-by-mail; the USPS would have been better prepared to handle an increased volume of ballots; and all of that would have taken place not during a pandemic and without an overlay of political hysteria and finger-pointing. But, after all, this was 2020.
Most election offices in the nation’s over 10,000 jurisdictions aren’t full-time operations or staffed by persons experienced in voting by mail. For years, the Postal Service has had teams working with election offices, advising on everything from mail piece design to preparation and entry of mailings. But neither those teams nor the offices with which they worked were prepared to pivot to large-scale voting by mail as quickly as interest in the method accelerated.
Essentially, conducting an election by mail is similar to producing a bulk mailing and managing returns from customers. That may be run-of-the-mill for commercial mailers but not for election officials; they knew how to run an election, but this did not translate into ensuring election materials were properly identified, or meeting USPS address accuracy and barcoding standards, or setting reasonable expectations for processing and delivery cycles. Many jurisdictions had their own formats for designing and addressing the envelopes of outbound and return pieces, and schedules for when ballots were mailed and due back to election offices. Some allowed voters to ask for a ballot to be mailed to them as late as the eve of election day.
In other years, transitioning from in-person voting to voting by mail would have been a better planned, smoothly implemented process, not something done in the midst of a pandemic. It also would have been done without the exceptional political tensions of the 2020 election cycle or the accusations that they generated.
A Perfect Storm of Mitigating Factors
Much of the focus on the USPS was based on a series of otherwise unexceptional circumstances.
For political reasons having nothing to do with the 2020 election, all of the nine appointed positions of the Postal Service’s Board of Governors had become vacant. Like all presidents who nominate thousands of political appointees, the incumbent president named individuals to serve as governors who, after the usual process, were confirmed by the Senate. Meanwhile, back in the fall of 2019, Postmaster General Megan Brennan announced she would retire in early 2020. Only the appointed governors of the USPS can hire (or fire) a PMG, so they began to search for Brennan’s replacement – a process that dragged into midyear and concluded with the selection of Louis DeJoy.
Not surprisingly, the governors believed DeJoy had the background to improve USPS efficiency and get its costs under control – all reasonable objectives – but they failed to realize that what would be the headline was DeJoy’s political history, not his executive experience. Aside from whether DeJoy was professionally qualified to be PMG, the optics of his selection fostered the belief that he was the president’s designee to use the Postal Service’s role in vote-by-mail to influence the voting’s outcome.
DeJoy didn’t help himself in the opening days of his tenure when, reacting to the findings of reports by the USPS Office of Inspector General, he ordered measures to control overtime and transportation costs. Both initiatives were reasonable and justified, but their timing was bad, given the impact of pandemic-related absenteeism and surging package volume on service performance.
At the same time, under ongoing programs to reduce its infrastructure to better align with shrinking mail volume, the Postal Service had been removing underutilized collection boxes and decommissioning redundant or obsolete letter-sorting equipment. Though there was no news in any of this, persons unfamiliar USPS activities quickly connected the removal of boxes and equipment, declines in service, DeJoy’s orders about overtime and transportation, and his political background to allege it all was indicative of a not-so-covert political scheme.
Soon, one camp was claiming the vote-by-mail process couldn’t result in a fair election (and that the USPS couldn’t support the related volume) while the other camp was accusing its opponents of using the Postal Service as a tool to disenfranchise voters by delaying their ballots. Other concurrent situations – the impact of the pandemic on the postal workforce, or the unexpected surge in package volume – were overlooked as everything postal was viewed through a political prism. Politicians in Congress demanded explanations from DeJoy, and lawyers were activated, lawsuits filed, and judges persuaded to order measures to monitor the USPS and thwart its misuse for political objectives.
Eventually, after one of the most bitterly contested elections in recent USPS history, the results were counted, and, in the end, none of what was alleged about the USPS proved true. One camp will claim its actions prevented a subversion of the electoral process, while the other camp will reply that there was nothing manipulative being done in the first place. As noted, the agency did very well, but not perfectly, so the headlines were about its failures.
Regardless, like before the election, the USPS still moves and delivers mail while dealing with the pandemic and waves of packages; revenue and costs are still moving in opposite directions. And politicians, no longer finding a political value in the Postal Service, have returned to ignoring the need for fundamental reforms to the agency’s outmoded business model.
Leo Raymond is Owner and Managing Director at Mailers Hub LLC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the January/February, 2021 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.