In highly-anticipated Senate testimony Friday, embattled Postmaster General Louis DeJoy was able to assuage some of election experts’ worst fears about how new changes at the U.S. Postal Service could hinder vote-by-mail this November. But he dismissed other concerns that have swept the country in recent weeks, leaving a still-murky picture of whether his agency was prepared for a pandemic election, even as some questions central to the USPS’ ability to deliver ballots on time were cleared up.
Crucially, DeJoy promised that USPS would continue its approach of expediting the delivery of mail ballots, even if election officials chose a cheaper — and, thus, typically slower — postage class. And he put a great deal of distance between Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting and his own beliefs, stating that voting by mail is a safe and reliable way to cast a ballot.
“The Postal Service is fully capable of delivering the nation’s election mail securely and on time,” DeJoy said, later noting that he has frequently voted by mail.
Repeatedly, however, he clashed with Democrats on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs — which was hosting the hearing — who pressed him on mail sorting machines that have been shut down in facilities across the county, a move that many say is slowing down deliveries. And he insisted he was not to blame for several of the policies causing much of the anxiety ahead of November’s election. He claimed that the policies he would take ownership of were intended to speed up mail delivery, despite evidence they have not.
“Theoretically,” DeJoy insisted, his demand that delivery trucks leave on schedule, regardless of whether all the mail was ready for them, should have gotten everyone’s mail to them faster.
But as he struggled with questions about what kind of analysis he did before making the change, he admitted that for a “variety of reasons” that policy didn’t pan out exactly as he had expected.
Special Treatment Promised For Ballots
Election officials have been alarmed by a shift in messaging in USPS guidance that seemed to indicate that ballots would move more slowly through the mail stream unless election officials paid for first-class postage, which costs nearly three times as much as the various discounted rates vote-by-mail veterans have used for sending ballots to voters.
The new emphasis on urging election officials to pay for first class service was among the points made in letters that went out to several states this summer warning them that the quick turnaround in their absentee voting deadlines risked some ballots not making it back in time to be counted.
On Friday, DeJoy said that those letters were intended to “safeguard” a largely vote-by-mail election, not to hamper it. He also said that USPS wanted to send a national message to voters encouraging them to get their ballots in early.
He clarified that, despite what was implied by the letters, the USPS will continue to treat ballots with priority, regardless of their postage class. Furthermore, he committed to meeting a benchmark set in previous election cycles of 95 percent of election mail being delivered in three days or less.
A Step Forward On Clearing Up Overtime Concerns
For all the clarity DeJoy brought about the special treatment ballots would get, DeJoy’s messaging on what role overtime will play in making sure vote-by-mail happens smoothly was more mixed.
When reports surfaced last month that employees were being told that overtime would be curtailed, election officials clamored for assurances that an exemption would be made for postal workers handling ballots. Some vote-by-mail veterans have said their local post office officials — with whom they have long-standing relationships — have signaled that the extra effort their USPS workers have put in to making vote-by-mail run smoothly will continue. But, until Friday, a nationwide guarantee that overtime limitations won’t get in the way of delivering ballots has been missing.
On the one hand, DeJoy made several comments Friday that suggested that USPS was still willing to devote the same amount — if not more — effort to get ballots delivered.
He confirmed to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) that overtime and extra trips will be permitted for the delivery of election mail, while announcing “aggressive efforts” that will start in October “to make sure everything is moving and flowing timely.”
He told Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), whose state has an established vote-by-mail program, that USPS will “scour every plant each night” to guarantee that, as long as voters put their ballots in the mail at least a week before the election, they will be delivered in time to be counted.
Asked by Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) about USPS’ plans for dealing with increased volume as vote-by-mail ramps up, DeJoy said USPS was going through the “detailed processes” that have been used in the past, and looking to expand upon them.
But, on the other hand, he still played down the idea that under his tenure, USPS was pulling back on overtime, even though TPM and other outlets have obtained documents suggesting a shift in policy. In a statement this week, he said “overtime has, and will continue to be, approved as needed.”
“We never eliminated overtime … it has not been curtailed by me or the leadership team,” he said Friday, when pressed on the reported cuts to overtime and whether they would be suspended.
A Refusal To Bring Back The Removed Blue Boxes And Sorting Machines
DeJoy insisted several times that the USPS’ iconic “blue boxes” that have been removed and shifted around in recent days — as highlighted in viral social media photos that have spread like wildfire amid panic over the Postal Service — were simply part of a “a normal process that’s been around 50 years.”
When he saw the “excitement it was creating,” he said, “I decided to stop it and we’ll pick it up after the election.”
It is the case that COVID-19 has caused a drop in letter volume, but election experts have told TPM that the movement of blue boxes, especially so close to the election, deserved more up-front explanation.
The same goes for mail sorting machines, which DeJoy said at one point were being removed to make more room for package sorting given the recent increase in that category.
As The Washington Post pointed out, the mail sorting machines set aside to be decommissioned this year amounted to 13% of the USPS stock — compared to 3% in 2018 and 5% in 2019.
On Tuesday, DeJoy said in a statement that blue boxes and mail sorting machines “will remain where they are.” But on Friday, he confirmed that this meant the ones that had already been removed or decommissioned would stay that way.
Pressed by Hassan on whether he would brief her office on a plan recommission at least some off the machines, DeJoy said he disagreed with the premise but promised to get back to her.
Hassan pointed to the processing facility in Manchester, NH: Four sorting machines had been taken out of service, she said. The machines “are just sitting there,” one has already been sold for scrap, and there’s just one left operational.
“If that machine fails — like it did yesterday when I was talking to postal workers in my state — sorting stops and mail is delayed until the machine can be fixed,” she said.