USPS crisis: Why mail is delayed, what that means for the election and what's being done about it

The United States Postal Service is at the center of a debate that involves the US presidential election this fall. Here's everything you need to know about voting by mail in the general election.

Clifford Colby Managing Editor
Clifford is a managing editor at CNET, where he leads How-To coverage. He spent a handful of years at Peachpit Press, editing books on everything from the first iPhone to Python. He also worked at a handful of now-dead computer magazines, including MacWEEK and MacUser. Unrelated, he roots for the Oakland A's.
Expertise Tech from browser security to password managers and government programs from mail-in voting to federal assistance
Clifford Colby
4 min read

How will the post office handle mail-in ballots this fall?

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Over the next two months, with more than 80 million voters expected to vote by mail to avoid polling places during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, government officials are growing increasingly concerned about the country's ability to manage the surge of mail-in ballots. A recent internal audit by the US Postal Service found that 1 million mail-in ballots were sent late to voters during the 2020 primary elections.

Adding to the concern, the US Postal Service has taken a series of steps this summer that could dramatically cut back its ability to handle the unprecedented number of ballots it will receive, which could be double the number compared with the last presidential election. And while Postmaster General Louis DeJoy told Congress he intends to pause planned changes to the service, which include closures of mail processing machines, until after the Nov. 3 election, some cities report the USPS continues to cut back on services.

Here's what we know about mail-in and absentee voting and how you can make sure your vote counts this fall.

Watch this: Blackhat 2020: Tech community must help secure elections

Why are the USPS actions such a big deal?

The reductions initially planned by DeJoy, who was appointed in June, includes taking offline 671 of its high-capacity letter sorting machines, removing collection boxes in Western states, limiting overtime and cutting back post office hours

The Postal Service has advised states it can't guarantee ballots will reach voters before the election. In letters sent to 46 states and the District of Columbia, the Postal Service warned "there is a significant risk that the voter will not have sufficient time to complete and mail the completed ballot ... in time for it to arrive by the state's return deadline." 

These moves, which the post office had said it was taking to "run more efficiently," come as Trump makes contradictory and often false remarks about the post office. He has threatened to cut off funding for the service and followed shortly after by tweeting that he wants to "SAVE THE POST OFFICE!" 

The result of all the planned changes ahead of the election, according to election lawyer Marc Elias, is that the Postal Service wouldn't be prepared to handle the surge of mail-in ballots in November. "The Trump administration has turned to weakening the United States Postal Service in a cynical effort to keep people from voting," Elias wrote.

Why is the postal service at the center of the debate?

The US Postal Service, which was established under the US Constitution, has been in dire financial straits for years. It lost $69 billion from 2007 to 2018. The coronavirus pandemic has put additional strain on the service, curbing the volume of big money-makers -- first-class and marketing mail -- because people are at home. The pandemic also turned funding for the service into a bargaining chip, with the White House and Congress wrestling with how -- and at sometimes if -- they should fund the service.

In addition to operational changes, DeJoy has recast management of the USPS by removing or reassigning more than two dozen top postal officials. Critics called the move the "Friday night massacre."

The changes are causing significant mail delays, postal workers say. But what caught the attention of Democratic lawmakers was the warning by the postal service that it couldn't guarantee it could handle the flood of absentee ballots in the November election.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and fellow House Democrats said the changes constitute "a grave threat to the integrity of the election and to our very democracy."

Pelosi called House members back from recess to pass a USPS rescue bill and to conduct a hearing with DeJoy about his actions. Following the hearings, a House panel intends to subpoena the USPS for documents pertaining to the slowdown.


A record number of voters may cast their ballots by main this fall.

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What would the USPS have to do with mail-in ballot fraud?

Trump has falsely claimed for weeks that universal mail-in voting will lead to widespread voting fraud

Every state lets voters cast a ballot by mail, ranging from absentee voting, which allows voters to request ballots by mail because they will be unable to vote in person, to what Trump calls "universal mail-in voting," election officials automatically sending vote-by-mail ballots to each person on the registration rolls. 

There is no evidence, however, to support the president's claims. "Mail ballot fraud is incredibly rare," reported the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan policy institute. "None of the five states that hold their elections primarily by mail has had any voter fraud scandals since making that change," the center reported. 

Members of Trump's own party also disagree with the president's assertions. "I don't know of any evidence that voting by mail would increase voter fraud," Sen. Mitt Romney said during an interview this month with the Sutherland Institute.

polls closed election 2020

Congress will hold a hearing on how the Postal Service will handle ballots this election.

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How can you make sure your vote counts?

If you're concerned that your mail-in vote may not count this fall but want to avoid election-day crowds, elections attorney Elias recommends three ways besides mailing in your ballot to ensure your vote is counted.

Vote early in person: Forty-one states allow voters to cast their ballots up to 45 days before election day, letting them avoid crowds.

Use a ballot drop box: Many states and counties provide ballot drop boxes for voters to return their mail-in ballot without having to mail it. 

Drop off your ballot at an election office or polling location: Almost all states permit voters to return a delivered ballot in person at their local election office on or before election day, Elias said, and many states allow voters to drop off their signed and sealed ballots at any in-person voting location.

For more, here's the difference between absentee and mail-in votinghow we'll vote this fall and how Facebook is helping you find election information.