Major USPS Changes Could Hamper Vote-By-Mail At The Worst Possible Time

DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 15: More than 40 pallets of Ballots were unloaded from a truck at the US Postal facility October 15, 2014 where they will be sorted for delivery. The impact and problems associated with Colorado'... DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 15: More than 40 pallets of Ballots were unloaded from a truck at the US Postal facility October 15, 2014 where they will be sorted for delivery. The impact and problems associated with Colorado's new all-mail ballot election may still be ahead. (Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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July 17, 2020 10:53 a.m.

Election officials who were already facing major challenges in making voting accessible operations during the pandemic were thrown a new curveball this week.

Mail service could be slowed down in coming months, as part of a campaign to overhaul the U.S. Postal Service launched by new agency leadership appointed by President Trump.

The proposed operational changes were first reported by the Washington Post this week, based on internal documents, some of which TPM has also obtained. In a statement to TPM, the U.S. Postal Service said that the “overall plan” had not been “finalized,” while stressing that the agency is “committed to delivering Election Mail in a timely manner.”

But major questions remain about how the newly-reported changes could affect the ability of absentee voters to get their ballots in on time to be counted. Several other aspects of the election process also rely on the mail, and there is now a scramble, in light of the recent USPS news, to understand what steps election officials need to take to keep things running smoothly.

In interviews with TPM, election officials, vote-by-mail experts, and mail vendors outlined ways the proposed changes negatively impact the vote-by-mail process, which is being adopted in record numbers across the country amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

They provided several scenarios in which the refusal to let USPS employees work overtime — the main driver of the changes being described — could lead to voters being disenfranchised.

“It’s really a concern. The Trump administration is looking at the Post Office as a business. It’s not a business, it’s a critical public service,” Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos told TPM.

Making The System ‘Susceptible To Issues’

Internal documents reported by the Washington Post describe a new culture being ushered where, in an effort to cut costs, overtime work would be vehemently discouraged. This means employees should leave mail behind if continuing to process those pieces would put them behind their schedule for deliveries.

“One aspect of these changes that may be difficult for employees is that.- temporarily – we may see mail left behind or mail on the workroom floor or docks (in P&DCs), which is not typical,” one document said, which described the changes as being implemented “immediately.”

In practice, that means some mail could take an extra day or even longer to be delivered. 

“There are a variety of stages where this is impactful,” said Tammy Patrick, a vote-by-mail guru who has been advising election officials. The particularities of mail-in-ballots create several potential chokepoints in the delivery process, Patrick, who is an expert at the Democracy Fund, said.

A persistent trend of voting in the pandemic is that, in jurisdictions without prior experience handling large-scale absentee voting, ballots were not making it back in time to be counted.

This could be the fault of the election officials, who did not have the staff, technology or expertise needed to process a surge in applications. Or it could be explained by voters not accustomed to the extra time voting by mail takes. In some cases, mishaps by the USPS were also blamed.

Regardless, tardiness resulted in at least 65,000 mail ballots not being counted in the primaries, according to an NPR analysis. In total, 34 states have requirements that mail ballots be received by Election Day or earlier in order to be counted.

Particularly vulnerable to disenfranchisement are the voters who do not apply for absentee ballots until days before an election, and several states set that application deadline for under a week before Election Day.

“So if we mail, and it takes an extra day, now it’s a bigger impact,” said Jeff Ellington, the president of the prominent election mail vendor Runbeck Election Services, who said states should take another look at those deadlines.

“The states that allow for late requests, they’re not going to change between now and November,” Patrick said. 

But delays also impede steps earlier in the process, before voters reach the point of applying for and receiving ballots. With the pandemic restricting in-person interactions, mail is playing a larger role in facilitating several election-related operations, not just vote by mail.  

Many voters learn of their in-person polling location via a card in the mail, and this year’s elections stand to bring major changes to where Americans must go to cast ballots in person.  States are experiencing severe shortfalls in poll workers and are being forced to consolidate polling places at the last minute.

With in-person voter registration opportunities being limited by the outbreak, mail is playing a more important role in that effort as well — and particularly in the handful of states that do not offer online registration. Many states have hard deadlines — days or weeks before an election — for getting registered.

The list maintenance process outlined in federal law, meanwhile, instructs election officials to use mail cards to confirm the registrations of voters who appear to have moved or otherwise may have become ineligible.

Actions that hinder these election mail operations, according to National Vote At Home Institute CEO Amber McReynolds, are “going to create inaccurate voter registration lists [and] make the system more susceptible to issues.”

The Potential To ‘Interfere With Somebody’s Access To The Ballot Box’

There’s no evidence yet that the recently-reported changes are being implemented with the goal of hampering the vote-by-mail process. But, even if those effects are unintentional, the postal service’s defenders see the changes as part of a broader approach that ignores the post office’s civic obligations, of which facilitating democracy is a part.

“We don’t want any mail to be slowed down, but if a ballot is slowed down, it could potentially interfere with somebody’s access to the ballot box, and that would be an outrage,” said  Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union.

Over recent years, the USPS developed protocols to encourage coordination between election offices and their liaisons in the postal service.  It’s not uncommon for postal workers to be working around the clock in the days leading up to an election to keep ballots moving to and from voters expeditiously, and ballots are tagged with special markings so workers know to make them a priority.

“On Monday, Tuesday of Election Day, a lot of times there are people working overtime to make sure that those ballots get processed, and postmarked and time stamped on the right date and the right time and get delivered.” Patrick said.  “That is another concern, that there are not going to be special considerations there.”

A USPS spokesperson, when pressed by TPM, declined to say for certain that those practices will be protected from the new policies, while insisting that “our current financial condition is not going to impact our ability to deliver election and political mail this year.”

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