WASHINGTON — More than one million mail-in ballots were sent late to voters during the 2020 primary elections, an internal Postal Service audit found, underscoring deep concerns about whether the agency has the ability to process what is expected to be a major increase in mail-in votes for the presidential election in November.
In a survey of mail-in ballots sent during primaries from June 2 to Aug. 13, the agency’s inspector general found that election boards across the country had sent more than one million ballots during the final week of the election, putting those votes at “high risk” of not making it back to officials in time to be counted. Hundreds of ballots were mailed after elections were over — meaning they could not be counted — and only a small percentage used the proper tracking procedures, the audit found.
With at least three-quarters of Americans eligible to receive a ballot in the mail in 2020 — the most in history — and about 80 million mail ballots expected to flood election offices this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic, the findings raised questions about whether the Postal Service would be able to handle the crush of votes.
“While the Postal Service has made progress in preparing for the 2020 general election, there are concerns surrounding integrating stakeholder processes with Postal Service processes to help ensure the timely delivery of election and political mail,” the auditors wrote.
The findings come at a time of heightened scrutiny of the Postal Service, as President Trump claims without evidence that voting by mail is fraudulent and Louis DeJoy, the new postmaster general and an ally of Mr. Trump’s, has made operational changes that have coincided with a slowdown in mail deliveries. The situation has prompted widespread concern among Democrats that the president is seeking to interfere with the mail to bolster his re-election chances or sow distrust about the ultimate result.
Mr. DeJoy has said that the agency is equipped to handle the demands of the election. But for months, the Postal Service has warned states to change their deadlines to avoid sending last-minute ballots to voters, a practice that all but ensures that many ballots will never be counted. More than 30 states require a ballot to be received by Election Day in order to count, and no state allows a ballot postmarked after Election Day to be processed.
An election expert testified before Congress last week that while some states have changed their deadlines, more than 20 states had failed to do so, risking the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters in the general election.
The audit, released on the same day as the Massachusetts primary election that is expected to feature heavy voting by mail, found the problems during primaries had been most pronounced in Kentucky and New York, where a combined 628,000 ballots were sent out late.
In 17 states, the audit found, more than 589,000 ballots were sent from election boards to voters after the state’s ballot mailing deadline. In 11 states, more than 44,000 ballots were sent from election boards to voters the day of or the day before the state’s primary election.
One particularly troubling situation, auditors found, unfolded in Pennsylvania, where 500 ballots were sent to voters the day after the election.
The inspector general’s audit also found that only 13 percent of ballots were mailed with the recommended bar code tracking technology. The investigators flagged longstanding problems with election boards failing to maintain updated voter files, meaning voters’ addresses were often out of date.
Additionally, the audit found problems in Baltimore. Even though postal officials there “certified that they were clear of election and political mail daily, our audit determined that political mail received on May 12, 2020, sat unprocessed for five days, resulting in about 68,000 political mail mailpieces not delivered on time,” the auditors wrote. They said the mail was eventually processed, but much later than it should have been.
Mr. DeJoy, who built a fortune in the private sector, began putting cost-cutting measures in place when he took over the Postal Service in June; mail delivery slowed by as much as 8 percent. He backed off some of his service cuts amid a firestorm of criticism and pledged to Congress last week that “we will do everything in our power and structure to deliver the ballots on time.”
David E. Williams, a Postal Service vice president in charge of operations, wrote in response to the report that management “largely agrees with the audit’s findings and recommendations, and we reiterate our commitment to efficiently process the nation’s political and election mail, and to timely deliver such mail.”
The audit, dated Monday, is the second by the Postal Service inspector general to examine mistakes made during the 2020 primary elections. Last month, auditors focused on problems in Wisconsin, where hundreds of ballots were left in tubs, unaccounted for, at the Milwaukee processing and distribution center during the state’s primary in April. About 160 ballots were erroneously returned to a local election office; another 390 had issues with the postmark, which led to confusion about whether they could be counted, the inspector general found.
The agency’s watchdog has also opened an inquiry into Mr. DeJoy in response to Democrats in Congress who sought an investigation into his operational changes and his personal finances, including his ownership of stock in a Postal Service contractor.
In July, the Postal Service warned states that it might not be able to meet their deadlines for delivering last-minute mail-in ballots, urging those with tight schedules to require that residents request ballots at least 15 days before an election — rather than the shorter periods currently allowed under the laws of many states. In response, some states, including Pennsylvania and Michigan, have called for extensions on counting late-arriving ballots in the election in November.