When it comes to getting millions of mail ballots out to voters during the current pandemic, election officials are finding themselves between a rock and a hard place.
They’re torn between the need to save money — amid a state and local government cash crunch — and the risk of mail ballots not making it to voters in time for them to be returned.
The trade-off is being compounded by what vote-by-mail veterans have described as murky and confusing messaging out of the U.S. Postal Service. The agency has become a lightning rod for controversy over how its recent operational changes could impact an election expected to take place largely by mail.
Some have accused USPS in recent days of pressuring election officials to adopt a more expensive delivery service for sending out ballots, and of backing away from past practice of giving election mail special treatment. Following USPS’ recommendations for the expedited delivery service could cost election officials up to three times the amount it would to send ballots at a discounted rate that has been used by some jurisdictions well-versed in vote-by-mail.
The agency, meanwhile, insists that it has been consistent in its advice to election officials and that it remains dedicated to helping mail voting run smoothly.
Critics of the postal service’s new President Trump-aligned leadership say that the brouhaha is just another example of USPS gumming up the works for people who would prefer to vote absentee in the name of cost-cutting.
“To triple the cost of voting by mail would be an outrageous and insidious policy that would make it even harder and more expensive for states, already struggling with depleted budgets from COVID-19, to conduct our elections safely,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Tuesday, while claiming the pricing gambit amounted to a “despicable derogation of democracy.”
State election officials who have experience in implementing large scale mail voting programs have raised their own concerns, with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla writing to USPS Monday that he opposed “proposed changes to postal service and pricing.”
But what really is changing about USPS’ approach to delivering ballots remains unclear, as does what’s motivating its new emphasis on encouraging election officials to pay extra to guarantee quicker delivery times. No matter what’s driving USPS’ recent shifts, however, current and former election officials told TPM the issue comes down to one of money, and the budget challenges that remain as Congress dithers on providing more funding for this year’s elections.
A USPS No Longer Willing To ‘Move Mountains’
For years, some jurisdictions with large-scale absentee voting operations have been able to secure various discounts from USPS when mailing ballots to voters.
One way officials have saved money is by using a commercial mail rate to deliver ballots to voters (though that option is not used for ballots coming back to election officials from voters). The commercial rate, combined with other discounts available to some election officials, can reduce the per-ballot delivery price to less than half of the first class delivery rate.
“It was a game changer for me when I first started vote-by-mail in Utah,” recalled Jennifer Morrell, a former elections official who now advises jurisdictions on election administration. “At first class, I don’t really think there was any way my local budget could incorporate those expenses.”
And while the commercial rate typically has slower delivery times (USPS says it can take three to ten days, as opposed to two to five for first class), jurisdictions where vote-by-mail is widely used maintain close relationships with their local USPS facilities, and through that collaboration, have seen their commercially mailed ballots still given some priority.
But in recent months — as an expansion of vote-by-mail has collided with a USPS in turmoil under new leadership — the postal service has begun emphasizing that it could not guarantee that commercially mailed ballots would make it to voters any faster than what is predicted for all other types of mail that use commercial delivery.
USPS denies that this amounts to a change in its policies, though, as its newly-installed postmaster general cracks down on overtime and other practices that in the past made the postal service able to respond to potential delays, some vote-by-mail experts see a “CYA” move designed to shift blame if ballots don’t make it voters in time.
“They have started messaging that they will deliver ballots at the class of service that they are being paid for and that is not how it has been articulated in the past,” Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor at the Democracy Fund, told TPM.
While in the past, she said, USPS would “move mountains,” to help election officials deal with state laws or vendor issues that made ballot turnaround times tight, USPS has been less than straightforward in guaranteeing that such an approach will continue this year.
“It seems like in this moment, the Postal Service is saying, ‘No, that costs us extra money,” and ‘No, we’re not going to bend over backwards because you haven’t aligned your laws to our delivered standards,’” Patrick said.
The USPS began warning about the risks of relying on commercially delivered mail for elections in early summer, before DeJoy took over as postmaster general in June. But that messaging has amped up in recent weeks. USPS has sent letters to state election officials warning that it won’t adjust its delivery standards to speed up the ballot mailing process, while “strongly” recommending use of first class.
In remarks last week, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy denied that the USPS was slowing election mail delivery, but stressed that ballots would be delivered in a “timely manner consistent with our operational standards.”
What has been tough for election officials to decipher is whether this means that commercially-mailed ballots will no longer get special treatment once they enter the mail stream.
After ringing the alarm over the weekend about the the postal service’s apparent shifts, Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman told Politico that a Monday discussion with USPS officials had her feeling better that election mail would still be prioritized in a way that would allow for commercial rates to be used for at least some of initial the ballot mailings. Her office told TPM that it’s nonetheless considering using first class mail for ballot mailings closer to Election Day.
Other election officials in established vote-by-mail states told TPM they’ve received no indication from their local USPS partners of a change in delivery approach — despite the messaging coming from the top discouraging commercial mail use.
No Cheap Solutions
What’s motivating the shift in USPS’ tone depends on who you ask. Some see it as another way in which the Trump allies that lead the postal service — DeJoy is a GOP megadonor and he was elevated by a board of governors made up entirely of Trump appointees — are trying to hamper vote-by-mail in conjunction with Trump’s own crusade against the practice. A USPS spokesperson called such allegations “wholly without merit, and frivolous. “
A more benign explanation is that perhaps the messaging is aimed at jurisdictions with limited absentee voting experience, who might already be underestimating the amount of time it takes the whole process to work as they scale up their mail balloting infrastructure.
States with more experience, such as Colorado for instance, have laws requiring that ballots sent out sent within a certain period before the election be mailed first class, and also have a messaging program that instructs voters to use drop boxes or other non-mail modes of ballot return if the election day is too close to rely on the postal service.
And even states that had significant rates of absentee voting still have deadlines that are too tight for the current realities of mail delivery, according to Patrick. She pointed to Florida, where election officials recently received their own warning from USPS.
But even the most charitable interpretation of USPS’ shifts doesn’t change the reality that mailing ballots first class is not a cheap solution. Wyman told Politico that upgrading all of the ballot delivery in her state to first class would increase costs from $432,000 to $2.4 million.
In places where the local USPS officials are not used to having to work so closely with election officials, getting everyone on the same page during the pandemic is an additional hurdle.
“Not just the volume of mail but the attention to that mail is probably a complete paradigm shift for a lot of those postal offices,” Morrell said.