By Liam Farrell, Maryland Today

COLLEGE PARK (10/14/20) — As voters worry whether a slowed-down U.S. Postal Service can handle a surge of mailed ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic, University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism professors and USA Today have forged an investigative partnership to measure mail performance in real time in critical swing states.

They’re sending 14 packages each week containing GPS units about the size of a fun-size Snickers bar and tracking their journey in both Democratic- and Republican-leaning areas in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, which independently apportions its electoral votes from the rest of the state. Since the GPS units make the envelopes heavier than a standard ballot, reporters are also using ordinary letters sent by certified mail with the bar codes logging each step from a mailbox to a location near an election office.

The answers will come at a critical time for voters. According to a UMD-Washington Post poll released last month, fewer than half of Americans intend to vote in the Nov. 3 presidential general election in person but only 65% are confident mailed ballots will be counted accurately. A majority also said they have noticed mail is taking longer to arrive than it did last year.

The genesis of the initiative was a summer conversation between Sean Mussenden, data editor for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and a senior lecturer of investigative data journalism, and Krishnan Vasudevan, assistant professor in visual communication. While discussing ways to dive into how the Post Office is functioning, Vasudevan recalled a 2009 Massachusetts Institute of Technology project electronically tracking individual pieces of trash.

“I thought this could be a cool concept to track the pace of the mail,” Vasudevan said.

The duo had experience in sensor journalism before with a 2019 investigation into how rising temperatures are affecting Baltimore residents. They didn’t have time to create original sensors as they did in the previous project, so they found 2G shipment trackers online that would be able to ping from passing cell and WiFi networks.

“These are designed to give us very specific micropoints,” Mussenden said. “We can help understand why if you mail your ballot, it might take a week and a half (to be delivered) because of the circuitous nature of mail.”

In the first run of the experiment, a few GPS units faltered and didn’t report any data, but five of them arrived one day after being mailed — faster than the expected two-day service — and four others took three days. One package in Florida, however, took a week to reach its destination and went halfway across the state and back before winding up at an address only a few miles away from where it was mailed. USA Today published a story about that first batch of findings on Oct. 2.

So while it may be possible to get a sense of the overall success rate of the Postal Service from the agency’s own aggregate statistics, Mussenden said this investigation is aiming to take a granular look at what it means for individual pieces of mail — and will mean, eventually, for presidential election ballots.

“It’s critical to have some kind of secondary look at what’s happening,” he said.