Report: Upward of 10,000 by-mail ballots unaccounted for in Utah

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Voters in Davis County drop off their ballots at the Davis County Library's South Davis Branch in Bountiful, Nov. 3, 2020.

More than 300,000 ballots across the United States were reported “missing” by the U.S. Postal Service this week — including upward of 10,000 in Utah, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

The U.S. Postal Service says the ballots in question, which reportedly received entry scans but not exit scans, were likely delivered to election officials in a timely manner but outside of normal processing procedures.

“We employed extraordinary measures to deliver ballots directly to local boards of elections,” the Postal Service said in a written statement to The Salt Lake Tribune. “When this occurs, by design, these ballots bypass certain processing operations and do not receive a final scan. Instead, they are expedited directly to the boards of elections.”

The Postal Service, which had indicated the number of ballots that were unaccounted for in a court filing this week, said it remains in “close contact” with state and local election officials and does “not currently have any open issues.” The Postal Inspection Service has also physically inspected all plants that process ballots, the statement said.

It’s unclear whether there were any ballots that did not make it to election officials on time across the country.

The Washington Post’s graphic shows Utah is one of three states, along with Arizona and New Mexico, where the Postal Service reported there were more than 10,000 missing ballots. Parts of Idaho, California and Florida also have areas with more than 10,000 ballots unaccounted for, according to the Post.

The potential for missing ballots in Arizona and Florida, which do not accept votes received after Election Day, is particularly significant as they have been battleground states in the presidential election. Florida was called for President Donald Trump on election night, while Arizona was placed in the Biden column Wednesday.

The Post reported that there were 81,000 ballots missing in 17 postal districts in swing states.

The untraced ballots drew attention on Election Day, when U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the District of Columbia ordered checks of postal facilities in a dozen states “to ensure that no ballots have been held up and that any identified ballots are immediately sent out for delivery.”

The possibility that so many ballots could be unaccounted for also drew particular attention after months of attacks from Trump and other Republicans targeting the reliability and security of by-mail voting.

Voting by mail has been popular in Utah, which before this year was one of just five states that voted primarily using the method, and election officials have said it is safe and largely free of fraud.

The president’s rhetoric — and national Postal Service slowdowns reported this summer — did appear to have an impact on Utahns' voting choices this election, however. Several county clerks reported that the use of ballot drop boxes had become especially popular as people sought to circumvent the U.S. Postal Service altogether.

Justin Lee, Utah’s director of elections, noted that all ballots postmarked as of Monday will be counted in Utah, even if received by county clerks after Election Day. So if there were any that hadn’t gone through the postal system in a timely manner, “I don’t think it’s the same big deal [for us] as it is for some other places," he said.

But Lee noted that it’s not unusual for postal workers to walk ballots over to a county clerk’s office to ensure they’re counted more quickly and said the Postal Service’s explanation for the unaccounted ballots sounds “very normal” to what he’s seen in years past.

“In Weber County I know I saw a tweet yesterday where [a postal worker] just walked them over," he said. “And that’s not unusual for a lot of our counties."