The US Postal Service warned 46 states and Washington, DC, in July that tens of millions of voters could effectively be disenfranchised because their mail-in ballots might not be processed speedily enough for November’s elections — even if voters follow all their state’s election rules.
The Postal Service’s notice, first reported on by the Washington Post on Friday, is the latest warning that sweeping cost-cutting measures and organizational overhauls at the agency, combined with increased demand for absentee voting during the pandemic, are undermining the United States’s capacity to conduct a fair election. Some states could be receiving 10 times their normal amount of absentee ballots in November’s elections.
The letter was sent before a round of cost-cutting measures that have slowed mail delivery nationwide and could make delays in sending and receiving ballots even worse.
“What Trump is doing to the USPS — right in front of our eyes — is as serious a threat to our democracy as anything any president has ever done,” tweeted Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, about the news. “I’m not overreacting; this is a five-alarm fire.”
Thomas J. Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president of the Postal Service, issued the notices at the end of July, according to records obtained by the Post.
The agency told six states and DC that a narrow set of their voters could experience delayed ballots. But for the remaining 40 states, the warning is far more serious: They were told that “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,” the Post reports.
That heightened warning applies to 186 million potential voters who are spread across blue states, red states, and battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
After the notices were issued, a few states moved deadlines to require voters to request or cast ballots earlier to provide ample time for counting. But it’s too late for many states to adjust deadlines, according to the Post.
The Postal Service letters counsel 31 states to inform voters that their mail-in ballots should be sent out at least a week before Election Day to ensure that they’re counted.
Experts on voting behavior have said that before the pandemic an estimated 25 percent of voters would’ve been expected to cast their ballots by mail, but they now estimate that 60 percent or more will attempt to vote by mail because the pandemic is discouraging in-person voting.
New York City saw a 17-fold surge in mail-in ballots during its primaries in June, a spike that overwhelmed the mail system and left the results for a congressional race unclear for over a month.
The Postal Service is under siege
Trump opposes $25 billion emergency funds allocated for the Postal Service in the coronavirus relief bill passed by House Democrats in May; he has also rejected the Democrats’ proposal to provide $3.6 billion for grants to states for contingency planning for the elections, which would fund additional equipment, supplies, and staffing needed to assist with voting safety during the pandemic.
The Postal Services warnings to states were planned before Trump appointed Louis DeJoy to head the agency in May. But DeJoy reportedly has overseen a range of cost-cutting measures that experts say will amplify its problems with delivery times.
The Postal Service is, for example, decommissioning 671 mail-sorting machines (10 percent of inventory), a move which the American Postal Workers Union has said could slow down the processing of election mail. Those machines can sort over 20 million pieces of paper mail per hour.
DeJoy has also reassigned 23 postal executives, consolidating power within the agency.
Recent reports that DeJoy still has a multimillion-dollar stake in his former company, XPO Logistics, a Postal Service contractor, has created even more controversy around the Postal Service’s cost-cutting, and shocked ethics experts.
“The idea that you can be a postmaster general and hold tens of millions in stocks in a postal service contractor is pretty shocking,” Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, told CNN about the revelation this week. “It could be that he’s planning on selling it, but I don’t understand the delay. He has managed to divest a lot of other things. And if he wasn’t prepared to sell that off, he shouldn’t have taken the job.”
CNN reported on Saturday that the internal watchdog at the Postal Service is reviewing his compliance with federal ethics rules and some of DeJoy’s new policies, such as his decision to reduce overtime for postal workers and slowing some mail delivery.
And a bipartisan group of secretaries of state — officials who are responsible for administering elections at the state level — said DeJoy failed to reply to a request to meet this week to seek clarity on the implications of postal service cutbacks.
The Postal Service has had financial challenges for years, and as Recode’s Adam Clark Estes has explained, the pandemic has dealt a huge additional blow to the agency’s finances:
Starting in March, the volume of first-class mail began to plummet (though a surge in package delivery has helped make up for that lost revenue). Meanwhile, tens of thousands of postal workers got sick or began quarantining, leading to a labor shortage and the need for more overtime hours. The Postal Service also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on personal protective equipment (PPE) and on retrofitting post offices with more plexiglass and more space for social distancing.
Top Democrats and legal experts have sounded alarms about the postal service’s warnings to states about their inability to handle mail-in ballots, and the refusal by the Trump administration and Republicans to inject additional funds into the Postal Service as Election Day approaches.
Joyce Alene, a professor at the University of Alabama, referred to the postal service’s quandary as a “manufactured crisis,” describing it as “unabashed voter suppression” by the Trump administration.
“Postal service sabotage = voting suppression. No need to connect the dots,” tweeted Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). “This bare knuckled scheme openly mocks our democracy & all Americans.”
Experts have also pointed out that election crises can emerge even if mail-in ballots aren’t being undercounted but are just severely delayed.
Lawrence Douglas, a law professor at Amherst College, has argued that Trump has signaled that he could exploit delays in mail-in ballots by deeming them fraudulent and claiming without evidence that their likely Democratic skew is proof of foul play.