Our objective was to evaluate the Postal Service’s international mail operations during the 2020 general election and the state of Georgia Senate runoff elections.
The Postal Service processes international election and political mail for eligible U.S. citizens throughout the world, including military and diplomatic members and their families. International election and political mail are typically processed at one of the five International Service Centers (ISC) located in New York, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. Most outbound and inbound international military and diplomatic election mail (about 80 percent) for the 2020 general election was processed through the Chicago ISC.
International election mail has distinct processing procedures that are different than those for domestic election mail. For example, U.S. election offices are expected to send out international absentee ballots at least 45 days prior to a federal election (i.e., September 18, 2020, for this general election). Also, certain international inbound military election ballots qualify for Express Mail service based on a partnership between the Postal Service and Department of Defense.
This project is a follow-up to our September 2020 report on Military, Diplomatic, and Other International Election Mail (Report Number 20-271-R20) which raised concerns about the Postal Service’s readiness to process international election mail and evaluated how the novel coronavirus disease outbreak (COVID-19) pandemic significantly impacted international mail service and operations.
The Postal Service reported processing and delivering record numbers of ballots during the 2020-2021 election season — over 135 million ballots. Within that total were ballots of international origin, including 62,139 for the general election and 1,055 for the Georgia Senate runoffs. These figures included only those mailings with trackable barcodes processed for either the general election or the subsequent Georgia Senate runoff elections. The total number of ballots processed without a barcode is unknown.
The Postal Service successfully processed international election mail for the 2020 general election and 2021 Georgia runoff elections, including international military and diplomatic election ballots. We did not observe any materially significant election mail delays and determined the Postal Service took timely corrective actions related to short-term operational readiness and staffing availability at the Chicago ISC as recommended in our September 2020 report. With regard to military and diplomatic ballots of international origin that qualify for tracking capabilities, Postal Service data reported a delivery scan for over 98 percent of deliverable ballots for the general election and nearly 97 percent for the Georgia Senate runoffs. Mail officials from the Departments of State and Defense stated they were generally satisfied with the Postal Service’s international election mail processing.
Successful election mail processing was a result of the following key operational adjustments made at the ISCs which were in addition to normal operations:
- Identifying and culling: Staff were placed at various entry points to identify and cull ballots for expedited processing and enhanced tracking. This process often involved bypassing normal inbound mail processing automation and instead having employees visually identify and cull these ballots.
- Documenting and tracking: Due to limitations regarding the Postal Service’s tracking of international election ballots (as noted in our September 2020 report), Chicago ISC employees developed an ad hoc system to document ballot acceptance and processing by taking a picture and/or photocopying each inbound ballot. While these actions required additional resources and time, staff performed these enhanced documenting and tracking steps in a manner that did not negatively impact the processing of these ballots.
- Cancelling and routing: Postal Service national leadership made an operational mandate on October 29, 2020, to utilize its Express Mail network to expeditiously process domestic and international ballots. This decision pushed additional volumes to the ISCs to take advantage of their Express Mail functionality — volumes that normally would have gone to another facility — and placed additional cost burdens on the ISCs. ISC management quickly implemented cancellation and routing procedures to handle these new volumes.
- Staffing: Managers effectively used a combination of additional workhours (regular and overtime) and employee staffing flexibilities to meet the extra operational demands. These efforts were particularly impactful at the Chicago ISC based on the short-term operational readiness and staffing availability issues we raised in our September 2020 report.
The Postal Service also implemented a variety of monitoring and oversight mechanisms for international election mail across all ISCs. These controls and tools included dedicated election teams and daily self-audits, clearance checklists, and logs to ensure compliance to their Election and Political Mail readiness procedures. For example, the Chicago ISC had an 8- to 10-person dedicated election team for each 8-hour operational tour. While most of these adjustments resumed at the ISCs in late December in preparation for the Georgia Senate runoff elections, some were downscaled due to the lower number of ballots and the higher international peak-season holiday volumes that continued into mid-January.
Although ballots were successfully processed within the ISC, we observed the following factors — delayed entry by mailers, limited international transportation, domestic network delays, and non-uniform envelopes — that may have impacted timeliness but were outside the control of the ISC:
- Delayed entry by mailers: Postal Service officials noted some international ballots were entered by mailers close to the November 3 general election date and these entry delays posed risks to the ballots being transported, processed, and delivered by designated election deadlines. We addressed this issue in more detail as part of our March 2021 report on the Postal Service’s domestic election performance Service Performance of Election and Political Mail During the November 2020 General Election (Report Number 20-318-R21), and recommended the Postal Service continue to educate state and local election officials on mailing deadlines.
- Limited transportation: Access to international transportation lanes for certain countries was limited due to COVID-19 restrictions which included embargos and lane capacity reductions. For example, on November 2, a ballot arrived at the Chicago ISC for an absentee voter in Zimbabwe. However, the next available outbound transportation lift would not occur until November 7. We discussed these COVID-19-related international transportation issues in more detail in our September 2020 report.
- Domestic network delays: We observed a small number of ballots destined for foreign addresses that were delayed in the domestic mail stream before arrival at the ISC, including ballots which were cancelled at a mail processing plant up to 33 days before arriving at the Chicago ISC. We discussed examples of similar delays in the domestic mail processing network in our March 2021 report on the Postal Service’s domestic election service performance. Management attributed delays to insufficient staffing and increased manual sortation. We concluded the majority of the ballot mail we observed were processed and delivered timely and that over 98 percent of identifiable ballots were processed in time to meet their service standard during the week of the general election.
- Non-uniform envelopes: Manual culling and identification of ballots was challenging because ballot shape and color was not uniform — e.g., some ballots were letter shaped, flat shaped, in preprinted return envelopes, in standard envelopes, handwritten, or typed. We discussed this issue in greater detail in our August 2020 election preparedness report, Processing Readiness of Election and Political Mail During the 2020 General Elections, and recommended management leverage existing partnerships with state and local election officials to create a separate Election Mail product that would support uniform mail processing, including mandatory tracking and proper design.
Given these extraordinary operational challenges and the mitigating strategies necessary to successfully process Election Mail in 2020 and 2021, it will be vital for the Postal Service to conduct an after-action evaluation to understand the operational risks and costs to deliver international ballots timely, as well as to identify operational strategies and best practices that can be implemented during the next election cycle.
Subsequent to our fieldwork in late March 2021, Postal Service staff at the Kalamazoo (MI) Processing and Distribution Center unexpectedly found a sack of international inbound ballots for the November 2020 general election on a pallet with empty sacks. The sack had an “election mail” tag and was unopened (the original banding seal was intact). Upon review, the sack contained 25 ballots destined for various election offices throughout the U.S. across 12 states. Though not material to the total number of international ballots processed, the Postal Service was unable to determine what caused the improper processing of these ballots. The last scan for these ballots showed arrival at the Dulles (VA) International Airport on October 15, 2020. The operational risks and vulnerabilities that led to this mishandling should be addressed as part of the after-action evaluation.
We recommended management conduct an after-action evaluation to understand the operational risks and costs to deliver international ballots timely, as well as to identify strategies and best practices that can be implemented during the next election cycle.