2020 Election
September 28, 2020 6:00 AM EDT

For three weeks in August, as election officials across the country were preparing to send out mail-in ballots to tens of millions of voters, the U.S. Postal Service stopped fully updating a national change of address system that most states use to keep their voter rolls current, according to multiple officials who use the system. A USPS spokesperson acknowledged the failure in response to questions from TIME, and said that at least 1.8 million new changes of address had not been registered in the database.

It is not clear to what extent the failure, which has not been previously reported, could compromise Americans’ ability to vote in this fall’s election. In normal times, hundreds of thousands of people move every week, and those numbers have increased during the COVID pandemic, which has forced millions of people, particularly young adults, to relocate at higher rates than usual, according to public polling and news reports. As of early June, some 3% of adults had moved and 6% had someone move in with them because of the pandemic, according to a Pew survey. That, and concern about the health risks of voting in person, experts from both parties say, will mean an unprecedented reliance on mail-in voting this year.

Several states contacted by TIME were unaware of the change-of-address problem. Officials in Minnesota, for one, sent out their ballot applications by mail earlier in September based partly on information drawn from the faulty database in August, the state’s election officials say. Other states had to delay sending out their ballots as they scrambled to fix incorrect addresses. At least 43 states plus the District of Columbia use the USPS change of address database. Many, like Minnesota, face close presidential contests, including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

The postal service says it fixed the change-of-address issue and restored the missing data on Sept. 14. The USPS spokesperson, Martha Johnson, said the problem did not impact mail carriers’ ability to forward “eligible” mail to a new address. Many states ban the forwarding of election ballots from an old address, however, and the Postal Service did not respond to requests for clarification on the failure’s potential impact on the election. Internal USPS emails shared with TIME describe the source of the problem only as an unexplained “error”.

The postal service has weathered a mixture of scandals over the last few months, some related to bad management, others to Democratic allegations that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has meddled with mail handling to help President Trump. The latest problem occurred from Aug. 10 to Aug. 30 at the National Change of Address Linkage, or NCOALink, which is run out of Memphis, Tenn. Bulk mailers, including government agencies, retailers and financial institutions contract to match addresses they have on file against the postal service’s database. Most state election offices also rely on the database to determine whether voters have moved, to ensure that ballots reach the new address and to purge voters who are no longer eligible to vote in the state. “This is an increasingly important way to verify voter information in an age when voters frequently move,” according to a report on voting practices in March by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In early September, several of the companies licensed to use the system alerted administrators that they were seeing drop-offs of as much as 95% in the number of changes of address for August, according to one vendor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to damage his relationship with the postal service. “It’s a significant screw-up,” he said.

A top election official in one affected state, who did not want his name or state disclosed because of ongoing work with the postal service, said administrators had to scramble to avert a possible crisis. The official recalls thinking, ”Usually, we’re getting thousands and thousands, and now we’re getting hundreds. What’s going on?” When the USPS corrected the database on Sept. 14, state officials passed the information to county election offices as ballot mailings were being prepared. The hitch cost election officials about ten days in all. “It’s a bad time for lost time,” the official said.

The glitch is highly unusual, according to those who use the system. “I haven’t seen an incident like this, where the data was omitted for any extended period of time,” Bob Anderegg, director of information technology for Sebis Direct, a bulk mail company in Chicago that licenses with the postal service system, said in a telephone interview. “It’s unfortunate,” he said.

The timing is particularly unfortunate. Starting with North Carolina on September 4, nearly half of all states have now begun sending out ballots and ballot request forms to voters. Many states started long before that to print out mailing addresses for updated voter lists, based at least in part on USPS data. Michael P. McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida specializing in voting practices, said it would be difficult to determine how many voters could be affected by the 1.8 million missing change-of-address filings, because election practices and schedules vary from state to state. The error will further complicate election season, McDonald said. “I can just see all the litigation after this. It just creates a mess,” he said.

DeJoy, a major Republican donor who took office in June, instituted controversial cutbacks to USPS services over the summer. House Democrats subpoenaed DeJoy earlier this month for internal documents about mail delays and his communications with the White House. DeJoy said he would suspend until after the election the cutbacks, which he said were intended to improve efficiency. In one of two federal court cases seeking to force him to halt cutbacks, Judge Stanley Bastian, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, ruled this month that DeJoy’s actions constituted “a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the postal service” and “an intentional effort on the part the current Administration to disrupt and challenge the legitimacy of upcoming local, state, and federal elections.”

The day of that ruling, DeJoy held a conference call with state election officials and gave a different message. “Our number one priority,” he said, “is to deliver election mail on-time and within the Postal Service’s well-established standards.” As for the database problem, Johnson says the Postal Service has made changes to the NCOALink system to prevent a recurrence of the August change-of-address episode. “Additional enhancements being implemented into NCOALink quality control processes will detect future occurrences of this type,” she says.

—with reporting by Alana Abramson/Washington

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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