Although hundreds of thousands of ballots sent through the Postal Service have not been tracked, that does not mean that those votes were lost. For their part, postal officials say they failed to track those ballots in order to speed up their delivery.
During a trial that has lasted weeks, Kevin Bray, the USPS’s executive lead for mail processing, testified in the US District Court for Washington, DC, on Wednesday that some ballots were removed from the normal mail flow so they could be delivered more quickly.
“We did that intentionally so we could expedite the delivery, not to cause someone to think that’s lost,” said Bray, who took the stand today in a lawsuit against the USPS, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, and President Donald Trump over delays in mail delivery dating back to August.
“We employed extraordinary measures to deliver ballots directly to local boards of elections.”
Breathless concerns were raised early Wednesday that thousands of ballots that had been scanned upon entering the postal system had not received an exit scan and were possibly left behind. But USPS spokesperson David Partenheimer flatly denied that on Wednesday afternoon.
“We employed extraordinary measures to deliver ballots directly to local boards of elections. When this occurs, by design, these ballots bypass certain processing operations and do not receive a final scan. Instead, they are expedited directly to the boards of elections,” he told BuzzFeed News. “We remain in close contact with state and local boards of elections and we do not currently have any open issues.”
In court, attorneys for the plaintiffs — which include voting advocacy groups and the NAACP — pressed Bray on how he could be certain no ballots had been left behind. For example, on Wednesday morning, the plaintiffs received reports that four days of election mail had been found on a loading dock in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Justice Department said the USPS investigated the rumor and no ballots were found.
Bray said that even without the scanning data, it might be possible to determine whether the expedited ballots had been delivered, but he cautioned that the process would be time-consuming. “There’s a whole analysis that could be done,” he said. “It would be a pretty big workload, but anything’s possible when data analysis is done.”
Bray, who testified on Wednesday that he was put in charge of election mail processing four weeks ago, said he designed the plan for expediting mail-in ballots with the “extraordinary measures” in mind that the court previously ordered the USPS to take. Asked if he had considered making all of the ballots traceable, he said, “Looking back, in hindsight, we could have come up with a means or method.”
When his team wrote the policy, Bray said the goal was “to accelerate the mail.”
“I wasn’t worried about, necessarily, the scans on the mail piece as much as I was by delivering the mail by the most accelerated process possible,” he said.
While the USPS has largely been successful in delivering the bulk of election mail on time, its 2020 record hasn’t been perfect. Plaintiffs’ attorneys raised the example of central Pennsylvania, asking Bray why delivery times hadn’t met the standard set for Election Day.
“I don't know why, and there’s no excuse,” he said. “It should never have happened, but I want to see why.”
While Election Day is over, the question of how many, if any, ballots are actually stuck within the Postal Service won’t be answered Wednesday. The Postal Service is supposed to provide the court on Thursday morning with additional information on the number of delayed ballots, including further details on an estimated 8,000 ballots in Pennsylvania and North Carolina that didn’t receive exit scans.
“I was told we’re going to have to do everything, move heaven and earth, to deliver ballot mail because we don’t want the courts to come back and say we didn't do everything we could.”
A number of states are still receiving and counting mail ballots, and so presiding Judge Emmet Sullivan’s focus remains on ensuring that happens in a timely manner. He ordered additional sweeps and reports on any delayed ballots in Texas, where the deadline for mail ballots to be counted was 5 p.m. local time Wednesday.
That order is very similar to the one Sullivan issued for a number of postal regions on Tuesday, which the USPS failed to comply with. When the bulk of the election work is done, Sullivan said, he intends to get more information about why the Postal Service defied his ruling, possibly from DeJoy.
“The postmaster is going to have to be deposed and appear before me or testify under oath,” said Sullivan, who earlier expressed his frustration with agency leadership.
“In no uncertain terms, I’m not pleased about the 11th-hour development last night,” he said early Wednesday afternoon, addressing the government’s counsel. “You can tell your clients that — and someone might have a price to pay. If it was not possible as a practical matter for my order to be compiled with, it was the government’s job to tell me that so I could make appropriate adjustments to the order.”
DeJoy, who was appointed by Trump in June, has been at the center of the controversy over mail-in ballots since he issued sweeping cost-cutting changes that resulted in delayed mail delivery this summer. Those changes and concerns about how they would impact the presidential election are what led plaintiffs to sue the federal government. While the Postmaster General previously testified that his reforms would be paused until after the election, the appearance of chaos within the Postal Service played into the president’s false claims that mail-in ballots were not reliable.
In court filings, the USPS has repeatedly said the mail delays have primarily been caused by chronic understaffing, which has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite that, Bray said, postal workers are making physical inspections of facilities and doing what they can so ballots are delivered on time.
“We are all aware of the scrutiny the Postal Service is under,” he said Wednesday. “I was told we’re going to have to do everything, move heaven and earth, to deliver ballot mail because we don’t want the courts to come back and say we didn't do everything we could.”