The United States Postal Service has never been more important to elections, but it faces more challenges than ever. What can be done before November?
WARREN, MI — Lewis Haney runs an Etsy storefront from his home in Warren, and relies on the United States Postal Service to get orders to his customers. He also relied on the Postal Service to get his ballot in the Aug. 4 primary to his local clerk.
And that, he told The ‘Gander, was a worrying situation.
“So I run a mostly online business. I ship my products weekly on Saturdays. They always make it within the week via first class mail,” he said. “During the shipment of July 19th I also included my ballot for the upcoming August election. I figured that I’d give them a good two weeks to make sure they arrived in time.”
But a problem arose. When customers were upset their shipments hadn’t arrived Haney looked up order tracking, and by July 27 those packages were still sitting in a post office in Warren. That prompted him to check and see if his ballot had been received. It hadn’t.
This hasn’t turned Haney against absentee voting, but it has given him concerns about the Postal Service and their role in the electoral process.
“I loved being able to vote from home. I had the opportunity to really check out all the candidates and see what they stand for while filling it out. Plus my job doesn’t really give me time to go vote usually,” Haney said. “I think in the future I won’t send it by mail but instead drop it off at the city clerks drop box just in case.”
Thousands of Votes Tossed in Michigan
In order to count, an absentee ballot must be in the possession of a clerk’s office by 8 p.m. on election day. Thousands of voters didn’t get their ballots to their clerk on time, and Haney’s story illustrates that this is not because of a lack of diligence on the part of voters, but instead often resulting from postal delay.
“As of yesterday, more than 10,000 absentee ballots have had to be rejected because they were postmarked prior to election day but received after election day,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson reported in a press event Thursday. “We do not know how many of these will be in our final total, we’re still working through that. But in our view this underscored the need for two key legislative changes at the state level.”
Those changes, Benson said, include changing Michigan law so that any ballot postmarked by Election Day is still counted. The other change she called for was allowing election workers to begin counting absentee ballots prior to Election Day, to combat the slowdown in results reporting that accompanies an increased use of voting by mail.
A lawsuit in Michigan courts attempts to address the same problem of deadlines Benson highlighted. League of Women Voters v. Benson argues that the requirement that ballots be received by the time polls closed, not merely cast by that point, disenfranchises eligible voters.
States like Alaska, Iowa, Maryland, North Dakota, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia already have similar policies.
“Those are valid ballots that were voted on time and submitted on time, and our voters’ rights should not be subject to the capacity of the U.S. Postal Service,” Benson said.
The Capacity of the Postal Service
Delays like the one Haney experienced have been a serious cause for concern for Sen. Gary Peters. For months he has been focusing energy on rallying to the support of the United States Postal Service as it struggles under the strain of the pandemic, which has caused declines in revenue, and underfunding from the Trump administration.
“For 245 years, the Postal Service has worked to provide reliable, consistent and on-time delivery that keeps Americans connected no matter where they live – especially in rural areas,” Peters said in a statement provided to The ‘Gander. “Unfortunately, in recent weeks, I’ve heard firsthand from constituents, postal workers and local officials in Michigan who have encountered problems with the timely and dependable service they count on to conduct business, get prescription medications and critical supplies, and even exercise their right to vote.”
In light of requests for absentee ballots more than tripling, WDIV reports Peters launched an investigation into the postal delays facing Americans. Peters is also asking people like Haney to provide their stories about delays or other problems with deliveries.
Peters and other Democrats in Congress are calling on the Post Service to reverse cost-cutting measures like elimination of overtime that have contributed to postal delays. Those measures were imposed last month by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Republican fundraiser and former supply-chain executive who assumed the role in June.
Memos from post office leadership, obtained by The Associated Press, detailed an elimination of overtime and a halting of late delivery trips that are sometimes needed to make sure deliveries arrive on time. One document said if distribution centers are running behind, “they will keep the mail for the next day.” Another said: “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.” Rumors have also circulated about the potential for entire offices to shutter, after the Postal Service told Sen. Joe Manchin, (D-WV), that regional managers there have identified 12 offices for “feasibility studies.”
“As Ranking Member of the committee charged with oversight of the Postal Service, I will be working to get to the bottom of any changes that the new Postmaster General may be directing that undercut the Postal Service’s tradition of effective service,” Peters said.
Rain, Snow, Sleet, or Hail Can’t Stop Them—But Trump Can
President Trump has severely undercut the Postal Service during his term. Trump has seen the Postal Service as a piece of his feud with fellow businessman Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, and surrounded himself with advisers dedicated to privatizing the post office, the New York Times reports.
With his appointment of DeJoy and DeJoy’s subsequent rollbacks of services, Trump has effectively hobbled the nation’s postal service, Peters argues.
“We have an underfunded state and local election system and a deliberate slowdown in the Postal Service,” Wendy Fields, the executive director of the Democracy Initiative, told the Times. She added that Trump was “deliberately orchestrating suppression and using the post office as a tool to do it.”
Trump has also used widely discredited claims to try and argue that the election in November should be delayed until the pandemic is over. He does not have the authority to do this.
By hobbling the Postal Service’s abilities in advance of the election, Trump makes another, different play to delegitimize the safe and secure vote-by-mail process, experts say.
“[The Postal Service’s ability] to timely deliver and return absentee ballots and their work to postmark those ballots will literally determine whether or not voters are disenfranchised during the pandemic,” Kristen Clarke, the president of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told the Times.
Though Trump’s disapproval of the Postal Service has existed for years, his recent efforts to undermine the service and reduce faith in its abilities during an election come as both Trump’s poll numbers slip and more voters turn to voting by mail during a pandemic.
“Without dramatic change, there is no end in sight, and we face an impending liquidity crisis,” DeJoy told the Postal Service’s governing board Friday.
COURIER reports that more than 80 members of Congress, from both parties, have written letters to DeJoy from both parties, have written letters to DeJoy demanding the policies that have contributed to these slowdowns be reversed before the November election.
“Elections are sacred,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told reporters after a Wednesday meeting with DeJoy. “To do cutbacks when ballots, all ballots, have to be counted—we can’t say, ‘Oh, we’ll get 94% of them.’ It’s insufficient.”
DeJoy did not respond to request for comment, but the Postal Service did have advice for voters.
USPS Encourages People to Vote Early
For its part, the Postal Service is optimistic about its ability to handle the strain posed by the upcoming election and the novel coronavirus.
“The Postal Service has ample capacity to adjust our nationwide processing and delivery network to meet projected Election and Political Mail volume, including any additional volume that may result as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Martha Johnson, spokesperson for the USPS, told The ‘Gander. “Our network is designed to handle increases in volume and deliver that mail in a timely manner. Additionally, the Postal Service has long-standing processes to align workforce to workload, including contingencies to respond to events like the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Johnson did stress that voters should send their absentee ballots in 15 days prior to the election. That would be October 19, one day before Michigan’s deadline to register to vote by mail. Though, as Haney saw first-hand, even 15 days may not be enough.
“The Postal Service is committed to delivering Election Mail in a timely manner,” she emphasized. “Customers who opt to vote through the U.S. Mail must understand their local jurisdiction’s requirements for timely submission of absentee ballots, including postmarking requirements.”
Johnson also recommended voters take other steps in advance of the election as well.
“Voters must use First-Class Mail or an expedited level of service to return their completed ballots,” she said. “We recommend that jurisdictions immediately communicate and advise voters to request ballots at the earliest point allowable but no later than 15 days prior to the election date. The Postal Service also recommends that voters contact local election officials for information about deadlines.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.