Every four years, ahead of the nation’s presidential election, marketers face postal questions. But with the uncertainty of COVID-19, 2020 brings us an especially unique situation.
Before the pandemic, only five states used an entirely vote-by-mail system. While all states allow absentee ballots, most have required voters to give a specific reason for not voting in person.
Over the past few months, states have significantly relaxed those restrictions, and several states are actively working to expand at-home voting because of pandemic concerns.
With the increase in ballot mail expected in late October and early November, how much this election will affect mail delivery is more difficult to answer. But we do have signals for what marketers can expect — and how to prepare.
How much will volume increase?
In the past, the impact of election-related advertising by candidates and parties was the concern, not ballots. They typically send this advertising mail in stages leading up to elections, with quantity dependent on state or county. This variable type of mail doesn’t usually slow direct mail and catalog processing.
Mail volumes typically increase in the fall, from the last week of September through the first week of December. It peaks from mid-October through mid-November — just when election and ballot mail will also be at its highest level.
This table shows the average in-home curves for the first week of November for the last 12 years. Mail delivery in 2008, 2012 and 2016 was slightly better than the non-presidential election years, which indicates that election-related mail shouldn’t impact USPS delivery.
What are the known unknowns?
But 2020 is a very different year. Because of the pandemic and loosened restrictions, more voters will request absentee ballots. Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah — conduct every election exclusively by mail. California, Nebraska and North Dakota allow counties to decide if an election will be held entirely by mail, which most will likely choose to do.
Michigan is mailing absentee ballots to all voters. And 26 other states have relaxed the need for a reason to vote absentee. Additionally, some states that require a reason for requesting an absentee ballot are sending absentee ballot applications to all voters and directing them to list “temporary illness” as the reason it’s necessary.
Generally more than half of states are either specifically encouraging vote-by-mail or allowing a much wider range of the population than ever to use that method.
States and counties where all votes will arrive via mail are sending ballots out early — sometimes months before the actual election date. Others will mail ballots after receiving a request. This will possibly lead to some delays in mail processing in October and early November. But those delays should be very temporary. Marketers should expect just an extra day or two with high volume, and then a return to normal.
And USPS customers should keep in mind that any impact will be in specific states that mailed ballots, not nationwide at the same time. Most mailers likely won’t detect delays to their mail due to outgoing ballots.
Incoming ballots likely will not impact USPS processing, either. There is little historical data regarding the timing of mail-in ballots. There will certainly be a surge in the last week before the election — but there’s nothing to indicate that it will be enough to noticeably impact USPS processing.
Will COVID-19 affect delivery around the election?
Of course, the pandemic throws a wrench into speculation about the impact of election-related mail. The USPS estimates that flat and letter volume will remain down by 20-25% throughout 2020. If that’s accurate, it will open processing time for any increase in election-related mail, reducing the possibility of processing delays.
But parcel mail volume is up significantly over past years, with some weeks 60% higher. This impacts flats processing more than letters and could continue to be a factor this fall. While there’s potential for delays in processing, they could also cancel each other out and not have a major overall impact.
Additionally, we’ll likely see COVID-19 hot spots through 2020 and into 2021 with local spikes in cases. This will affect the USPS in each area, with workers out on sick leave for extended periods. This will likely impact mail processing more than anything else over the coming months. Even though it’s difficult for mailers to plan around these circumstances, all Postal Service customers are in the same position.
Will customers ignore my mail around the election?
Marketers might assume that customers are less likely to look at catalogs and direct mail in the days leading up to election day. But this really depends on the customer and the product.
Most people continue to live and shop as they normally would around the election. Consumers are used to a lot of ‘noise’ in any circumstance, juggling activities, thoughts, schedules and pressures — all with marketing messages vying for attention.
When a national election approaches, Americans still think about the holidays, planning for a hectic two months. Most have already decided on their vote and won’t be deterred from reading other mail.
Ask the experts
Many catalogers and direct mailers simply cannot shift mailings around because of the constricted pre-holiday timeframe. Ultimately, any changes to a target in-home date because of an election should be based on audience, products and marketing goals.
There’s not much about 2020 that isn’t completely unique. Still, there’s no reason to believe direct mail and catalogs will go unnoticed around the election, or be delayed by the USPS.
The USPS is planning for any eventuality it can anticipate. Marketers should stay in close contact with their postal vendors for the latest information, to make the best decision for their business.