Records: Mail delivery lags behind targets as election nears

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FILE - In this May 5, 2020, file photo, absentee ballots to be counted are moved at City Hall in Garden City, Mich. Data obtained by The Associated Press shows Postal Service districts across the nation are missing the agencys own standards for on-time delivery as millions of Americans prepare to vote by mail. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

The slice of Michigan that covers Detroit, its suburbs and towns dependent on the auto industry is coveted political terrain in one of this year's most important presidential swing states. It also has another distinction as home to one of the worst-performing U.S. Postal Service districts in the country.

In Michigan and beyond, states are seeing record-breaking interest in mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic. But controversial changes at the Postal Service have compounded long-standing delivery delays nationwide and sparked concerns among election officials and voters alike over the agency's ability to deliver this fall.

Data obtained by The Associated Press shows postal districts across the country are missing by wide margins the agency’s own goals for on-time delivery, raising the possibility that scores of mailed ballots could miss deadlines for reaching local election offices if voters wait too long. Missing a deadline is a key reason mail-in ballots get rejected.

Several postal districts serving urban regions in battleground states have a history of delivering mail at below the national targets and saw sharp drop-offs in performance over the summer. The message to voters is clear: Mail those ballots early.

“As soon as possible," said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat.

The Postal Service, long an afterthought in the political process, has been drawn into the fray after its new leader, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, implemented a series of cost-cutting measures that delayed deliveries nationwide. The changes have sparked a flurry of legal challenges and caused concerns over the agency's ability to handle the anticipated crush of election mail this year, although DeJoy has said it will be the Postal Service's top priority.

DeJoy, a GOP megadonor with no previous experience at the Postal Service, postponed the removal of mail sorting machines and collection boxes last month. He said it was "to avoid even the appearance of impact on election mail."

Despite pausing some policies, DeJoy left in place rules restricting when mail can leave warehouses, which several postal workers have said is a main culprit behind the delays. Federal judges have since ordered the Postal Service to halt all changes, although the agency said it is exploring its legal options.