Time Is Short, Mail Is Slow and Courts Keep Changing the Rules. What Should Voters Do?

With just over a week left in the campaign, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that election officials in Wisconsin cannot accept any ballots that arrive after the polls close on Nov. 3.

While the ruling was largely expected, it only added to the confusion among voters in an electoral process made especially challenging by the pandemic. Michigan voters faced a similar issue when an appeals court ruled that the state cannot accept ballots after Election Day. And voters in Pennsylvania remain on edge as a new challenge to their ballot deadline extension has been filed in federal court.

Then there are the uncertainties about whether the Postal Service can be counted on to deliver ballots by next Tuesday in many other states. Here are the options for those who are concerned about making sure their vote counts.

The Postal Service sent a letter to states in August, recommending they tell voters to mail their ballots by Tuesday, a week before Election Day, if they wanted to ensure they would arrive in time.

The Postal Service has reported that on-time delivery rates for first-class mail are far below its target throughout October.

According to a news release on Friday, during the week of Oct. 10, the most recent for which data is available, the Postal Service saw on-time first-class mail delivery dip to 85.6 percent, near a low of 83 percent it reported during the summer peak of the pandemic in July.

Normally, the agency reports on-time delivery, defined as within two days, at rates above 95 percent.

Data compiled by The New York Times tracking on-time delivery rates reveals stubbornly persistent multiday delays throughout October, with key battleground states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, all facing continuing troubles.

Anticipating pressure to get ballots to elections boards as fast and efficiently as possible, the Postal Service has put in place measures to sort out and expedite election-specific mail, which is often labeled and bar-coded, making it easier to track and prioritize.

According to data in court filings the agency provided during a lawsuit over operational changes that caused delays in September, the Postal Service stated that on-time delivery of election mail was as high as 97.2 percent at the time, even though overall on-time delivery for first-class mail was only 84.2 percent then.

“It is being treated differently,” said Michael Plunkett, the president of the Association for Postal Commerce. “They’re doing things to identify it and isolate it in the network and devoting resources to make sure that the plants are cleared of election mail on a daily basis.”

To be safe, some experts recommend that voters who have the option deliver ballots directly to election officials or collection points themselves.

“I would not mail in a ballot in this circumstance, and I think for anybody who can, either vote in person or drop it off at a box,” said Paul F. Steidler, a senior fellow who studies Postal Service operations and policies at the Lexington Institute, a research group.

If a voter has already received a ballot and cannot mail it in time to ensure it arrives by Election Day, a drop box is the best bet. Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, among many others, have installed drop boxes in counties or municipalities where a voter can drop off a ballot. Such secured drop boxes will be receiving ballots until Election Day, and are not subject to any mail delays. County election offices also accept hand-delivered absentee ballots.

If a voter is not comfortable voting by absentee ballot now, there are still other options.

In Wisconsin, people who have already requested a ballot but have not sent it back yet can show up and vote early through Nov. 1, or they can vote in person on Election Day. They can also vote in person if they have received their ballot but have not mailed it back yet, and do not need to take it to the polls themselves.

In Pennsylvania, voters must take their entire absentee ballot packet, including both envelopes, to a polling place on Election Day and turn it over to be voided by election officials. After signing an affidavit guaranteeing that they have not voted by mail, voters can vote in person on the machines. Without an absentee ballot, a voter will have to cast a provisional ballot on Election Day.

Voters in Michigan have a similar option to Pennsylvania, where they can take an absentee ballot to polls on Election Day to have it voided, and then vote in person. Voters who do not have their ballots can sign an affidavit at their polling locations and then vote as normal.

On Monday, experts also warned voters not to turn to private carriers like UPS or FedEx to handle ballots after a photograph circulated on social media showing the singer Lady Gaga holding her ballot and a FedEx envelope. Some states do not accept ballots if they are delivered by a private carrier. And states generally require ballot envelopes to carry a postmark, which only the Postal Service can apply.