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Mailed Ballots in Kentuckiana Faced Delays, USPS Data Show

Aranami/ Flickr
The USPS logo on a mailbox.

Ballots mailed in the Kentuckiana region were consistently delayed in the days leading up to the election, according to United States Postal Service data.

The USPS released the data in response to a lawsuit filed in August by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other plaintiffs, including advocacy groups Vote Forward and Public Citizen.

The lawsuit accuses the Postal Service and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy of implementing policies that slowed mail delivery during the crucial months preceding an election where voting by mail delivery played an historic role. The data provides the so-called “processing score,” which is the percentage of mail items processed on time. A federal judge has ordered the USPS to explain any issues and corrective measures the Postal Service is taking in regions where processing scores dip below 90% for two days or below 80% on one day. 

The Kentuckiana district, which includes 108 Kentucky counties and 11 Indiana counties, is one of 22 districts with processing scores low enough for concern. Other districts that have met the criteria include the Appalachian region, Greater Indiana and Central Pennsylvania.

The NAACP sued in Washington, D.C. federal court to make sure ballots are handled correctly and to “preserve the integrity of the November 2020 election, and to ensure that every American has access to reliable mail service during the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the initial complaint.

The Postal Service became a factor in the 2020 election when DeJoy, the postmaster general appointed by President Donald Trump, implemented policies that the NAACP argues in its lawsuit "impeded the timely distribution of mail, implemented crippling policies on postal workers, and sabotaged the United States Postal Service in a blatant attempt to disenfranchise voters of color."

DeJoy said the changes — limits on any extra trips for mail carriers — were to meet cost cutting goals. Many of the changes were blocked by judges in this and other cases against the Postal Service.

U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ordered the Postal Service to release the latest performance data on October 27. 

The deadline to count ballots has already passed in Indiana, but Kentucky ballots postmarked by Tuesday, November 3, will be counted up until Friday. 

The plaintiffs are highlighting low-performance scores from Kentuckiana and other regions to push the Postal Service to handle ballots appropriately in the coming days.

“Because we know that the deadline for delivery to the board of elections hasn't passed in Kentucky, and because we know that in Kentucky the deliveries have been slow, we want to do what we can to get Kentucky fixed,” Allison Zieve, an attorney representing the plaintiffs for the D.C. based advocacy group Public Citizen said. “But we don't know how many (ballots) that is.”

The USPS has not responded to a request for comment. But the Postal Service has accompanied its court filings with warnings against drawing conclusions from performance data the agency says is incomplete. 

USPS says that, as part of its ballot processing plan, many bellows will be delivered through “local turnaround” and wouldn’t be included in the processing scores. “In short,” the government’s response to the order reads, “the scores are not representative because USPS’ extraordinary measures, which expedite delivery, are resulting in ballots not being captured by its service-performance data.”

The volume of mailed ballots processed by USPS also appears low in the Kentuckiana region compared to other regions. For example, on October 30, the Kentuckiana region handled 559 ballots on their way to the clerk’s office. That same day, USPS handled  21,627 incoming ballots in Central Pennsylvania and 27,347 in Central Ohio.

But the data does show delays: On October 24, for example, USPS reports the Kentuckiana region processed ballot mail within three days only 37% of the time. Only 53% were delivered three days after the initial three day window, according to the data.

By Election Day Kentuckiana’s processing scores had risen, but still lagged behind the rest of the country. Incoming ballots sent to the clerk’s office by way of the USPS were processed within three days 62% of the time and 88% of ballots were processed within six days.

Zieve said Kentuckiana has posted consistently low processing scores since the plaintiffs began collecting the data a few weeks ago. “The data does show that for the ones handled through the traditional USPS system, scores are low,” Zeive said. “And they haven’t explained that.”

Corey Shapiro, the legal director of the ACLU of Kentucky, says delays in the mail should be a concern for all voters in Kentucky, particularly those who are choosing to vote by mail for health reasons.

“That is not something people should expect during an election year,” Shapiro said.

On election day, judge Sullivan ordered the Postal Service to conduct sweeps of mail facilities in regions that have records of processing mail ballots in a timely manner to “ensure that no ballots have been held up.” Kentuckiana does not appear to be targeted for sweeps. Facilities that were targeted in Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston, Alabama, and South Florida, among others.

The Postal Service announced Tuesday it could not comply with that order by the judges’ deadline, but sweeps conducted later that day found just 13 ballots in Pennsylvania that were subsequently delivered. 

Still, the Postal Service’s late notice that it would not meet the court’s deadline led to a tense hearing on Wednesday. 

“In no uncertain terms, I’m not pleased about this 11th-hour development last night,” Judge Sullivan told Justice Department lawyers representing the Postal Service at a call-in hearing. “You can tell your clients that—and someone might have a price to pay.”

Sullivan said he wanted postmaster general DeJoy to testify under oath, either in a deposition or in the courtroom.

Jared Bennett is an investigative reporter and deputy editor for LPM. Email Jared at jbennett@lpm.org.