Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has scandalized the nation in recent days with cost-cutting measures that he has said are meant to improve the Postal Service’s finances — even at the expense of mail delivery times. And with Election Day fast approaching and state and local officials expecting record-breaking numbers of ballots to be cast by mail, the USPS shenanigans could end up impacting the vote tally itself.
Still, the flurry of reports in recent days has been relentless, and it’s tough to distinguish potentially significant obstacles to voting rights from what otherwise might be typical USPS operations.
With DeJoy set to testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Friday, and again before the House Oversight Committee on Monday, here’s a rundown of what may actually affect election-related mail, and what we’ve learned about it in the past week:
1. Cuts to overtime, and leaving mail behind
Reports that USPS employees were being told that they were no longer going to be permitted to work overtime — and thus, mail would need to be left behind if it wasn’t processed in time for the scheduled departure of mail carriers — set off some early alarm bells for election experts, who had been watching the Postal Service closely after the departure this springof leaders with whom they’d built a close relationship.
Adding just a day to the amount of time it took a ballot to get to a voter or back to an election official could result in thousands of ballots being rejected come November. The ballot rejection trends from spring and summer primaries showed that, already, thousands of ballots were not making it back to election officials in time to be counted during the pandemic, particularly in the states with limited vote-by-mail experience.
Veteran mail-in election administrators told TPM they have come to expect an all-hands-on-deck approach from their local postal partners, who often brought them into USPS facilities to help monitor the usually nonstop work of getting ballots back to election offices.
USPS headquarters at first played down the idea that there had been an overtime policy change, and claimed the instructions to postal workers obtained by the Washington Post, TPM and others were not an official, nationwide document. But DeJoy has since acknowledged that longer delivery times were a consequence of the cost cutting he was trying to do at the agency.
His statement this week announcing that he was putting his “initiatives” on pause until after the election didn’t fully clear up the matter, as it implied that nothing had actually changed in the overtime policy and that overtime was being “approved as needed.” This has left election wonks guessing about the circumstances in which overtime work will be allowed. They want a guarantee that election mail delivery is being exempted from any limitations on overtime.
2. Warnings to states on deadlines
Amid the rising concerns about overtime cuts, USPS issued letters to 46 states (though some say they didn’t receive them) warning them that their deadlines for the absentee voting process were not aligned with the USPS delivery standards.
In fairness to USPS, for years election experts had been warning states that their timelines for voters requesting and receiving ballots were outdated. But many of those states had only a very small percentage of their voters casting ballots by mail anyway — at least until the pandemic, during which the use of absentee voting exploded.
When combined with the overtime cuts, however, the new emphasis from USPS on the potential that ballots wouldn’t make it to election officials in time had many vote-by-mail experts wondering whether these warnings meant the USPS was abandoning a longstanding approach of doing everything it could to get ballots delivered, even if it meant working nonstop in the days leading up to an election. It wasn’t clear whether the warnings were being sent as a general precaution, given that the pandemic was increasing vote-by-mail use, or if they were a reflection of how DeJoy’s broader cost-cutting policies stood to impact ballot delivery.
One vote-by-mail expert suggested the letters could be a “CYA” move, so that if the new policies that slowed delivery times delayed ballots, USPS could blame election officials for not listening to their advice on moving back their deadlines.
At the very least, it wasn’t likely that most election officials were going to be able to heed the USPS warnings about their deadlines, which are usually set by state legislatures (and many legislatures don’t have plans to reconvene in time to fix the issue.)
3. First class mail v. marketing class
The warnings about the deadlines were entwined with the wonky issue of postage price.
For years, experienced mail-in administrators have used a cheaper marketing rate — which, when combined with other discounts, brings the per-ballot postage cost down to 20 cents from the first class 55 cent postage rate. Marketing-rate mail is technically a slower delivery class, but veteran vote-by-mail administrators have long had the understanding that USPS workers were giving all ballots a priority treatment, akin to first class, even when they were mailed at a cheaper rate. Election officials new to large scale vote-by-mail have also been looking to adopt that cost-saving tactic, as state and local budgets have already been stretched by the pandemic.
But in the state letters and other USPS guidance, the agency implied a “get what you pay for” approach to delivering ballots, by stressing that election officials should not expect delivery times quicker than what the general USPS standards say.
This apparent shift in message began before DeJoy officially took over as postmaster general. But the lack of transparency about what was driving the new warnings to states caused panic. And DeJoy echoed the rhetoric even as he promised he wasn’t slowing election mail.
Regardless, the issue of cost is a real one — even if there were good intentions behind the USPS’ warning against marketing rates. Even officials in established vote-by-mail states, where the turnaround time isn’t as tight, say that, due to USPS’ warnings they will likely need to spend more to upgrade at least some of their ballot deliveries to first class.
4. ‘Blue boxes’ being moved around
Viral photos of mail boxes on the back of USPS trucks have spread panic in recent days, with commenters (and TPM emailers) worried that DeJoy is seeking to cut off one method for returning ballots through the mail. USPS spokespeople have told various news outlets, including TPM, that the shifts are part of regular maintenance and the normal movement of low-traffic dropboxes to higher-traffic areas.
DeJoy said Tuesday, after quite a bit of backlash, that “blue collection boxes will remain where they are,” but that did not address the fate of mailboxes that have already been shuffled around or removed from streets. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said Wednesday, after meeting with DeJoy, that he had no intention of replacing the mailboxes that had been removed.
Notably, David C. Williams, a former member of the Postal Service Board of Governors, told lawmakers Thursday that the removal of blue boxes was “not part of ongoing plans, to my knowledge” at the time of his resignation in late April.
“As a matter of fact,” he continued, “Secretary Mnuchin wanted that done. His study of the Postal Service asked that it be done. I asked the Postal Service about it and they said there would be no reason to.”
“I am not sure how it went from that, several weeks ago to this, where they’re being uprooted from all over,” Willams added.
Some context is required: Most people who vote by mail actually return their ballots in person, or otherwise use their own mailboxes to send the outgoing mail, according to Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser at Democracy Fund. And it’s possible that, given the sharp COVID-19-related decline in mail volume, boxes might have been legitimately moved around.
But, she said, the Postal Service hasn’t shared the traffic data driving these movements, and the timing is troubling. “Ballots mail out a month from today in every state,” she said. “It’s incredibly problematic that there are so many changes happening so close to an election cycle.”
5. Decommissioning mail sorting machines
News of sorting machines being removed from mail processing centers offered, at least compared to the blue box panic, a more measurable story: According to the Washington Post, which cited a postal workers’ union labor grievance, USPS was planning on decommissioning 671 mail sorting machines — about 10% of its total inventory. The machines, which sort through letters orders of magnitude more quickly than humans can, may have seen less use in recent months due to the overall drop in mail (rather than package) volume that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s not clear how many machines in total were decommissioned before DeJoy said in his statement Wednesday that he was “suspending” the decommissioning. But what does seem clear is that the machines that were unplugged aren’t coming back, at least for now. In an email obtained by Vice News, USPS higher-ups instructed maintenance managers, “We are not to reconnect any machines that have previously been disconnected.” And at least some of those decommissioned machines have been trashed:
— Heather Walker (@_HeatherWalker) August 19, 2020
Does this matter for election mail? Or are the remaining machines enough to cover the expected demand for mail sorting during the election? The move to decommission the machines could be legitimate and without ill intent, but experts told TPM the lack of clear communication and justification from USPS set off alarm bells. As former Deputy Postmaster General Ron Stroman told reporters Tuesday, “part of it is a lack of transparency — we just don’t know. There has not been clarity about what has happened with regard to mail processing equipment.”
6. Barring postal employees from serving as ballot witnesses
This is a somewhat newer issue than the others on this list, but the ability of postal workers to act as witnesses for mail-in voters could have a significant impact in certain areas, especially isolated places where there simply may not be other people around to serve as witnesses.
The Anchorage Daily News first reported on the apparent rule change this week, after voters around the state complained that — unlike in other l election years — postal workers had told them they were prohibited from serving as witnesses despite state law recognizing them as “authorized officials” with that authority.
A USPS official, responding to a query from Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai, said postal employees “are prohibited from serving as witnesses in their official capacity while on duty, due in part to the potential operational impacts.” But, the spokesperson added, “The Postal Service does not prohibit an employee from serving as a witness in their personal capacity off-duty, if they so choose.” The correspondence was obtained by the Anchorage Daily News.
That didn’t clear things up much. Nor did another USPS spokesperson who told the Daily News, “My understanding is this is a national thing that went out. It’s not just Alaska.”
TPM has reached out to the USPS for comment and we’ll update this piece if we hear back. It’s worth noting that in some states this election cycle, voters will be allowed to skip the witness requirement for mail-in ballots entirely, given the unique circumstances presented by COVID-19.
Cristina Cabrera contributed reporting.