The decision to shift to remote voting for the 2020 national election requires legislatures, state-level secretaries of state and other election officials to weigh different types of risks against one another. And, in a year where large crowds amassed indoors puts the health of election workers and the public in jeopardy, remote voting by mail is clearly the safest choice.

Although there has been much negative press around the safety and security of voting by mail, the R Street Institute’s latest policy paper finds that the United States Postal Service (USPS) is “well-positioned” to successfully handle a national election carried out primarily through postal ballots.

Transportation and postal policy associate fellow, Nick Zaiac, makes the case that the agency is uniquely well prepared to handle a mail-in election and details how it already helps secure mail—including sensitive government documents—and punishes those who tamper or steal shipping products. Further, the report outlines the capacity of the bodies responsible for oversight of the postal system and what challenges the USPS faces in the months ahead.

“The November elections will be the great ‘audition’ of vote by mail across the country and there is little question that during this coronavirus pandemic, the Postal Service will rise to the occasion and deliver,” writes Zaiac. “Though many will be voting this way for the first time, the USPS has proven capable of reliably moving government documents for decades, even if the agency is far from a perfect institution.”

The paper explains:

  • The USPS currently has enough excess capacity to handle a surge in mailed ballots. The agency presently has built-in resiliency models among its five distinct classes of workers to ensure that mail keeps moving despite any localized staffing shortages that may occur. Admittedly, this is not an exact science, and the challenge may require some creative—but simple—advanced planning.
  • Fearmongering about election interference through the mail downplays the amount of security work the USPS has already done to keep the mail stream secure on a daily basis. Vote-by-mail ballots have never been the only mail that requires extra layers of security and the agency has carried absentee ballots for decades. Beyond ballots, the letter stream also includes census forms, jury notices, legal warnings for fine-carrying nuisances, and many other important and time-sensitive documents that must arrive in a timely manner.
  • Mail theft, tampering and fraud are criminal offenses and that will not change during an election that relies heavily upon mail balloting. Laws exist to safeguard sensitive shipping products, though the government must be careful in levying criminal penalties for minor crimes.
  • USPS has established, well-funded oversight bodies, and hundreds of staff, to ensure ballots will arrive safely and those who lose ballots will be punished. The United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), an agency specialized in finding and prosecuting postal crimes, and the USPS Office of the Inspector General (USPS OIG) enforce laws related to the mail.
  • The experience gained from handling 2020 Census forms, which are also similar and sensitive government documents, is a valuable “dry run” for new postal workers tasked with handling ballots later in the year. It also provides an opportunity for postal management to solve staffing bottlenecks over the summer before they become a problem at election time.
  • Localized COVID-19 outbreaks are a significant risk and difficult to manage but the Postal Service has extensive experience in shifting resources to keep mail moving in the event of localized mail disruptions. The agency routinely keeps mail moving in a timely fashion during bad weather, illness among employees and other daily issues. As we have already seen, the pandemic hasn’t stopped the mail either.

Despite its preparation, the first nationwide vote-by-mail election will certainly not be without its challenges. Accordingly, Zaiac also briefly discusses the three that are most likely to emerge. Ultimately, however, he finds that all of these can be met and overcome with a combination of the agency’s present resources and procedures and good, old-fashioned advanced contingency planning.

Read the full policy paper, “USPS Capacity for Vote by Mail,” here.