Saturday, August 15, 2020

The United States Postal Service Is Warning Us

Anticipating an avalanche of absentee ballots, the U.S. Postal Service recently sent detailed letters to 46 states and D.C. warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted — adding another layer of uncertainty ahead of the high-stakes presidential contest.
“The letters sketch a grim possibility for the tens of millions of Americans eligible for a mail-in ballot this fall: Even if people follow all of their state’s election rules, the pace of Postal Service delivery may disqualify their votes.
“The Postal Service’s warnings of potential disenfranchisement came as the agency undergoes a sweeping organizational and policy overhaul amid dire financial conditions. Cost-cutting moves have already delayed mail delivery by as much as a week in some places, and a new decision to decommission 10 percent of the Postal Service’s sorting machines sparked widespread concern the slowdowns will only worsen. Rank-and-file postal workers say the move is ill-timed and could sharply diminish the speedy processing of flat mail, including letters and ballots.
“The ballot warnings, issued at the end of July from Thomas J. Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president of the Postal Service, and obtained through a records request by The Washington Post, were planned before the appointment of Louis DeJoy, a former logistics executive and ally of President Trump, as postmaster general in early summer. They go beyond the traditional coordination between the Postal Service and election officials, drafted as fears surrounding the coronavirus pandemic triggered an unprecedented and sudden shift to mail-in voting.
“Some states anticipate 10 times the normal volume of election mail. Six states and D.C. received warnings that ballots could be delayed for a narrow set of voters. But the Postal Service gave 40 others — including the key battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida — more-serious warnings that their long-standing deadlines for requesting, returning or counting ballots were ‘incongruous’ with mail service and that voters who send ballots in close to those deadlines may become disenfranchised…
“In response to the Postal Service’s warnings, a few states have quickly moved deadlines — forcing voters to request or cast ballots earlier, or deciding to delay tabulating results while waiting for more ballots to arrive.
“Pennsylvania election officials cited its letter late Thursday in asking the state’s Supreme Court for permission to count ballots delivered three days after Election Day. But deadlines in many other states have not been or cannot be adjusted with just weeks remaining before the first absentee ballots hit the mail stream. More than 60 lawsuits in at least two dozen states over the mechanics of mail-in voting are wending their way through the courts.
“Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that mail ballots lead to widespread voter fraud and in the process politicized the USPS. This week, he said he opposes emergency funding for the agency — which has repeatedly requested more resources — because of Democratic efforts to expand mail voting.
“The Postal Service’s structural upheaval alone has led experts and lawmakers from both parties to worry about timely delivery of prescription medications and Social Security checks, as well as ballots. ‘The slowdown is another tool in the toolbox of voter suppression,’ said Celina Stewart, senior director of advocacy and litigation with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters. ‘That’s no secret. We do think this is a voter-suppression tactic.’
“Vanita Gupta, a Justice Department official in the Obama administration and now president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said she viewed the situation as ‘the weaponization of the U.S. Postal Service for the president’s electoral purposes. It’s completely outrageous that the U.S. Postal Service is in this position,’ Gupta said.
“DeJoy, in service changes last month, has drastically reduced overtime and banned extra trips to ensure on-time mail delivery. His wholesale reorganizations ousted several agency veterans in key operational roles. And the USPS is currently decommissioning 10 percent of its costly and bulky mail-sorting machines, which workers say could hinder processing of election mail, according to a grievance filed by the American Postal Workers Union and obtained by The Washington Post. Those 671 machines, scattered across the country but concentrated in high-population areas, have the capacity to sort 21.4 million pieces of paper mail per hour.
“The machine reductions, together with existing mail delays and a surge of packages — a boon to the Postal Service’s finances but a headache for an organization designed to handle paper rather than boxes — also risk hamstringing the agency as the election approaches and have lead lawmakers to hike up pressure on DeJoy to rescind his directives.
“DeJoy wrote in a letter to USPS workers Thursday that temporary delivery slowdowns were ‘unintended consequences’ of his efficiency moves but that the ‘discipline’ he was bringing to the agency ‘will increase our performance for the election and upcoming peak season and maintain the high level of public trust we have earned for dedication and commitment to our customers throughout our history.’
“DeJoy declined to be interviewed, but in a statement the USPS described the machine reductions as a matter of ‘routinely’ moving equipment to accommodate the mix of packages and letters in the mail stream. Doing so ‘will ensure more efficient, cost effective operations and better service for our customers,’ the statement said.
“Even without the emergency funding Trump vowed to block, postal workers can handle the country’s mail-in ballots with proper planning, the head of their union said. ‘Piece of cake for postal workers,’ said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union. Johnson, the USPS spokeswoman, also said the agency ‘is well prepared and has ample capacity to deliver America’s election mail.’…
“The letters warning about November caution many states that their deadlines for voters to request an absentee ballot are too close to Election Day and that ‘the Postal Service cannot adjust its delivery standards to accommodate the requirements of state election law.’ The letters put the onus on election officials to adjust deadlines or educate voters to act well before them.
“Mail carriers, meanwhile, have warned that new cost-cutting measures at the USPS are slowing the delivery of mail ballots in key states. Recent contests have offered a preview of the potential consequences, with voters — particularly in urban areas such as Detroit and the Bronx — complaining that their absentee ballots did not arrive until the last minute or at all.
“The problems predate the cost-cutting measures — a late returned ballot was the chief reason absentee or mail ballots were disqualified during the 2016 election, according to U.S. Election Assistance Commission data submitted to Congress.
“An analysis of the USPS letters to states reveals that the threat of ballot rejection because of missed delivery deadlines may be highest for voters in 40 states that received serious warnings. About 159.5 million registered voters live in those states.
“According to the letters, the risk of disenfranchisement is greatest for voters who wait until close to Election Day to request or cast a ballot. The letters advised 31 states that regardless of their deadlines, voters should mail ballots no later than Oct. 27 — a week before Election Day — if they want to guarantee they are counted.
“Elections officials across the country are also installing drop boxes for completed ballots and encouraging voters to use them in lieu of the Postal Service. The USPS did not offer serious warnings to the five states that have long conducted universal vote-by-mail elections — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington…
“Postal workers, meanwhile, are concerned over the ongoing removal of mail sorting machines in areas that project to be hotly contested in the presidential race. The machines — Automated Facer-Canceler Systems, Delivery Bar Code Sorters, Automated Flat Sorting Machines and Flat Sequencing Systems — can label and sort tens of thousands of paper mail items, such as letters, bills and ballots, each hour.
“Purchased when letters and not packages made up a greater share of postal work, the bulky and aging machines can be expensive to maintain and take up floor space postal leaders say would be better devoted to boxes. Removing underused machines would make the overall system more efficient, postal leaders say. The USPS has cut back on mail-sorting equipment for years since mail volume began to decline in the 2000s. The machines, however, fundamentally changed the job of some postal workers, allowing them to spend more time on the street delivering mail, rather than in post offices organizing it.
“Elections officials in several states contacted by The Washington Post said their deadlines for voting by mail had been in place for years and that the Postal Service has long noted some concerns about meeting them. Some officials received the warnings with skepticism, others with resignation…” (The Washington Post). 
Jada Yuan contributed to this report: "Postal Service warns 46 states their voters could be disenfranchised by delayed mail-in ballots"
Erin Cox is a politics reporter covering Maryland. She joined The Washington Post in 2018 and has written about Maryland since 2007.
Elise Viebeck is a political enterprise and investigations reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 2015.
Jacob Bogage writes about business and technology for The Post, where he has worked since 2015. He previously covered the automotive and manufacturing industries and wrote for the Sports section.
Christopher Ingraham writes about all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.

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