WASHINGTON — She waited and waited for her mail-in ballot to arrive until — finally, maddeningly — she could wait no more.
So this weekend, 25 days after election officials in Ohio say they mailed an absentee ballot that never arrived, Laura Ruch, 30, will leave her medical fellowship in Atlanta, board a plane against her better judgment and fly home to vote in person amid a pandemic.
“It’s really frustrating,” said Ms. Ruch, who has called and emailed election officials repeatedly without receiving satisfying answers about what happened to her ballot. “If this is happening to me, it’s probably happening to lots of people.”
In the final week of voting in the 2020 campaign, the worst fears about the Postal Service’s ability to handle the crush of election-season mail have not materialized, according to interviews this week with secretaries of state in battleground jurisdictions and election experts.
“Generally speaking, we’re pleased with the service,” said Steve Simon, a Democrat who is the secretary of state in Minnesota, where he expects as many as 40 percent of voters to cast ballots by mail.
But the Postal Service’s record in getting mail-in ballots to voters and then returning them to election authorities on time remains spotty and inconsistent enough to generate continuing concern and to leave some voters anxious and looking for last-minute ways to assure their votes will be counted.
Figures reported by the service in court filings show that the nationwide figure for on-time delivery of mail ballots has bounced around this week, from 89 percent on Tuesday to 97 percent on Wednesday, amid wide variations in individual regions. The agency, which has cautioned against reading too much into daily fluctuations in performance, has designated election mail as its highest priority and defines on time as being delivered within one to three days.
J. Remy Green, a lawyer who represents 17 mail-in voters in a lawsuit filed in federal court in New York, said that the Postal Service was performing much better than its low point this summer, but that figures showing more than 10 percent of ballots on a given day not being sorted in a timely way this week remained troublesome.
“In that regard, 89 percent is quite shocking,” Mx. Green said. “You knew these were ballots and you only got them in 89 percent of the time? That’s wild.”
Questions about whether mailed ballots will be received in time to be counted remain a flash point in the election and the subject of litigation that has repeatedly reached the Supreme Court this week. In the last several days, the justices have ruled that Wisconsin cannot extend its deadline for receiving absentee ballots but left in place for now Pennsylvania’s plan to allow an extra three days for ballots to come in and said North Carolina could provide up to nine extra days.
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The lingering concern about mail ballots also appears to have contributed to the surge in voters flocking to the polls to vote early and in person. More than 28 million people had already voted in person and more than 52 million mail ballots had been returned as of Thursday afternoon.
Mail service in general in about 60 of 67 postal districts across the country remains consistently worse than it was before cost-cutting measures carried out in July by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy substantially slowed service. And in 10 districts — including ones crucial to the election’s outcome, such as Philadelphia, Detroit and northern Ohio — first-class mail performance is particularly slow, with more than 20 percent of mail delivered late.
On Wednesday, the Postal Service reported that first-class mail in Philadelphia met the on-time delivery standard of one to three days for just 58 percent of deliveries, and in Detroit the number was even lower: 52 percent.
Delivery rates dropped sharply in July after Mr. DeJoy, a Trump megadonor who was hired to bring in logistics expertise, pushed through the cost-cutting measures, including limiting overtime and late truck trips, to try to overhaul an agency suffering billion-dollar losses. Those changes prompted widespread complaints of medicine being delivered late and animals dying in packages amid a nationwide slowdown of mail.
Mr. DeJoy’s orders came as Mr. Trump railed almost daily against the Postal Service and voting by mail, causing postal workers, voters and election experts alike to warn of a building crisis that could disenfranchise record numbers of Americans who will be casting ballots by mail in November because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Delivery rates have rebounded some from their low in July but remain below on-time performance levels before Mr. DeJoy’s hiring.
The improvement came after a series of court orders from judges across the country, in response to a dozen lawsuits filed against the Postal Service, forcing Mr. DeJoy to reverse his changes. One federal court ruling in New York, for instance, ordered the Postal Service to treat all election mail, including ballots, as first-class or priority mail; preapprove all overtime requested from Oct. 26 to Nov. 6, the peak times for election mail; and submit a plan to restore on-time delivery of mail to its highest level this year.
The transition in leadership at the Postal Service prompted new “uncertainty” and “confusion” ahead of the election, said Michigan’s secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat.
She added that the state installed drop boxes across municipalities, at least in part over concerns about sustained delays in mail delivery. Two weeks before Election Day, Ms. Benson began cautioning voters against returning their ballots by mail.
In a separate suit against the Postal Service in Florida, lawyers representing the Service Employees International Union said they were particularly concerned about absentee voting in Miami-Dade County, where some 60 percent of mail ballots have yet to be returned before Tuesday’s deadline.
Other battleground states, like North Carolina, have also reported that large numbers of mail ballots have yet to be returned. It was not clear whether the people who received those ballots had failed to send them back, left mailing them until the last minute or changed their plans and decided to vote in person.
To try to alleviate Democrats’ fears, Mr. DeJoy, who has fought back against criticism that he is trying to sabotage the election, has authorized “extraordinary measures” this week that include “expedited handling, extra deliveries and special pickups” to accelerate ballot delivery.
“The Postal Service is deploying all available resources to ensure that all election mail moves timely through our system,” said Kristin Seaver, a vice president at the agency who is in charge of delivery.
She acknowledged that issues with mail delivery remain a problem in certain pockets of the country, but said that top postal officials have “deployed additional services” to local managers to help.
Stephanie Freeman, a 66-year-old retiree from Dimondale, Mich., said she had experienced the Postal Service slowdowns in several ways, including the nondelivery of her car insurance premium, she said.
When it came time to deliver her ballot, Ms. Freeman simply could not trust the agency to handle her vote; she elected to hand-deliver her ballot to her local clerk’s office.
“As much as I love the U.S.P.S., I had zero confidence that these people could do the job that they were hired to do,” Ms. Freeman said. “It was vital that my county received my vote directly from me.”
Mr. DeJoy’s steps to prioritize election mail have alleviated some fears and won over some of his harshest critics.
Mark Dimondstein, the president of the American Postal Workers Union, which has clashed with Mr. DeJoy, said in an interview that vote-by-mail operations have largely been successful.
“The process is working quite smoothly,” even with the agency’s broader challenges, he said.
In Pennsylvania, Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming and Maryland — all parts of the country with the slowest mail — election officials say they generally are not seeing major problems with the Postal Service.
In at least two battleground states — Ohio and Arizona — Postal Service officials have rerouted ballots that once were supposed to be sorted out of state for a more expedited processing of residents’ votes.
Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said any delays she had seen so far appeared to be on par with previous election cycles, even with a huge surge in the volume of mail-in votes.
With just days to go before Election Day, state and local officials are now urging voters who have received mail-in ballots to use drop boxes or vote in person rather than risk using the mail. And postal workers say they are pushing hard to make sure ballots do not fall through the cracks.
Doug Meyer, a small parcel bundle sorter and the vice president of the Madison, Wis.-area American Postal Workers Union, said he is part of a team that inspects his facility every day for mail-in ballots that could be left behind.
But voters who requested and never received their ballots — like Rachel Pickett, 37, a census worker from Earlville, N.Y. — said they were not comforted by Mr. DeJoy’s promises.
Ms. Pickett, who does not own a car, requested mail-in ballots three times and never received one. Eventually, she gave up on voting by mail and caught a ride to a polling place 45 minutes away to vote in person.
“There are a lot of people who won’t be able to vote by mail, and it’s definitely the Postal Service’s fault,” she said.
As for Ms. Ruch, whose mother also had to wait weeks before receiving her ballot in the mail, she plans to vote in person on Saturday after taking a 700-mile flight to Detroit and then driving an hour south to Toledo.
“I didn’t want to fly in the middle of a pandemic,” Ms. Ruch said. “I don’t want to wait in line for hours, being around people and increasing my risk of exposure. But you have to do what you have to do to vote.”