This fall’s elections are the latest chapter in the slow-motion collapse of the U.S. Postal Service, one of America’s most venerated institutions. As November approaches, members of Congress and state election officials have grown increasingly concerned that the USPS will fail at a critical moment: a closely contested vote that will involve a record number of people casting a ballot by mail.
That worry was fueled by President Donald Trump’s unfounded allegation that voting by mail leads to massive fraud and by reports from Postal Service employees that key equipment was being removed and overtime was being slashed. The newly appointed postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, responded to what he termed “areas of concern” by announcing that he would approve overtime “as needed” and delay the removal of mail sorting machines until after the election. But the problems at the Postal Service go well beyond those issues and predate DeJoy. Earlier this month, the USPS warned state election officials that it might not be able to meet deadlines for delivering ballots for the November elections.
With DeJoy scheduled to testify before an emergency session of Congress on Friday, here’s a guide to help you understand the issues and what remedies lawmakers could provide.
What’s going on at the Postal Service under DeJoy? Is mail being slowed intentionally?
There are at least three possible reasons for the unusual recent delays in mail delivery.
The first is both the most obvious and the most tragic: More than 8,000 postal workers have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to USPS’ official count. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has addressed more than 200 complaints against the USPS alleging insufficient COVID-19 protections, and the toll on workers could be slowing down the overall mail operation.
The second is that staff cost-cutting plans were implemented by DeJoy. One way that the USPS deals with variations in demand is by spending more on staffing, including overtime. For example, during the holiday season there is greater demand for mail, which translates into increased overtime spending. When the USPS reduces this spending, performance can suffer.
In July, the Postal Service told staff that in an effort to cut costs, it would no longer be making late or extra delivery trips from processing and distribution centers. The USPS also began eliminating overtime hours put in by workers. Because of the staff shortage caused by the pandemic, postal workers were using more overtime than usual, making the cuts especially severe.
The last possible reason is that the USPS went ahead with a previously approved plan to remove hundreds of letter processing machines from its facilities. The removals began around the time DeJoy took office, but the Postal Service adopted the plan before he arrived. An internal USPS document showed a goal of eliminating about 20% of the machines, though the number continued to change.
The USPS has seen a long-term decline in the volume of letters being sent, and the agency says that’s why it’s removing the machines. When asked by ProPublica, the USPS declined to comment on the notion that having fewer machines could slow the processing of election mail.
On Tuesday, DeJoy said that overtime “has, and will continue to be, approved as needed,” and that mail processing equipment will remain in place until after the election.
Isn’t the mail the same everywhere? Why would some states be better at delivering mail-in ballots?
There are five states with universal voting by mail, and those states have had enough time to get it right.
In 1998, Oregon became the first state to send ballots to all registered voters by mail. Washington, Colorado, Hawaii and Utah came next, setting up similar systems. Because they’ve been practicing for years, they have clear processes that are coordinated statewide along with significant security and voter education resources. Voters in these states won’t have to do anything differently this year.
There are also several states where voting by mail is not universal but is extremely common. More than half of voters in California, Arizona and Montana cast ballots by mail in 2016. In Florida in 2018, over 30% voted by mail. These states will also have an easier time scaling up their operations for November.
In states where voting by mail is uncommon or new, figuring out how to adopt a new form of casting a ballot will be a significant challenge. These states generally require voters to choose one of a limited number of reasons preventing them from voting in person.
In these states, election administrators lack experience and, perhaps more importantly, the appropriate equipment to rapidly ramp up voting by mail. These states will need extensive guidance from more experienced states, and they would most directly benefit from increased federal and state funding.
Trump has called the USPS a “joke.” Is he right? What, if anything, is wrong with the Postal Service?
Depending on whom you ask, the Postal Service is either an iconic provider of an essential public service or an ossified, money-losing agency badly in need of free-market discipline. What the Postal Service is not, however, is a normal business.
The Postal Service has a “universal service obligation” to offer affordable mail to all Americans and has a congressionally mandated monopoly on the mail. Many people, particularly those who live in hard-to-reach areas, depend on the Postal Service for delivery of vital medication, paychecks and letters. At the same time, the USPS has been disrupted by new forms of communication as well as competition from companies like Amazon, which nonetheless rely on it for the last mile of many deliveries.
Package volume has been rising over the last few years, and as more people shopped online during the pandemic, it soared 49% between April and June compared to the same period last year. The bad news? First-class mail volume, traditionally the Postal Service’s most profitable category, has fallen every year since 2001.
The long-term prospects for the USPS are indeed grim. Thanks to a wave of plant closures and consolidation, mail delivery has also gotten steadily slower, and the Postal Service has not hit any of its first-class mail delivery goals in five years. The pandemic has made things even worse. More than half of the nation’s 67 postal districts failed to meet any of their first-class mail delivery goals in the first quarter of 2020, Wisconsin Watch reported, with some of the worst problems occurring in swing states.
Can Congress do anything to help fix the Postal Service before the election?
The Postal Service is ordinarily a self-funding operation, but there are things that Congress can do in this unique situation.
Here are three options:
- Get rid of a burdensome law. Congress could relieve the Postal Service of its obligation under a 2006 law to pre-fund decades’ worth of worker benefits, returning it to a more standard “pay as you go” model. The Postal Service has been warning for years that its business model is not sustainable in large part because of that requirement, a burden that has not been placed on other agencies. Without the 2006 requirement, the Postal Service would likely have been profitable in some years over the last decade, according to the Trump administration’s own estimates.
- Pay the USPS some of the money it is already owed. Congress has neglected to appropriate more than $1 billion that it owes the USPS for the discounted mailing service the agency provides to nonprofits, local newspapers and disabled Americans.
- Spend some new money. The biggest thing Congress could do is simply cut a few very large checks. As of Monday, House Democrats are finalizing a $25 billion bill to fund the Postal Service.
If states are struggling to run their elections in a pandemic, can Congress help?
Again, like so many things, it comes down to money. Election officials and voting experts have been warning, over and over, that states need more money to properly run elections during a pandemic. This year, many states have had to build large voting-by-mail operations for the first time and safe, socially distanced in-person voting processes, effectively running two new types of elections at once. This requires funding, and it has proved doubly difficult for cash-strapped states.
In March, Congress allocated $400 million in election funding as a part of the CARES Act. But that wasn’t anywhere near enough. The Brennan Center for Justice estimated states need more than $4 billion in spending to shore up their election capacity.
Last week, Trump said he opposes both additional election funding for states and additional money for the Postal Service.
Can states do anything to help the USPS deliver ballots on time?
- States can set reasonable timelines. For example, Minnesota allows voters to request an absentee ballot up to the day before the election — an obviously unrealistic timeline for the Postal Service and election administrators to meet.
- They can work with the USPS. States can make an effort to ensure that local post offices are aware of deadlines and have a specific plan for how to identify and process ballots separately from regular mail.
- They can educate the public. States will need to standardize their processes and materials and invest in education campaigns to teach the public how and when to cast their ballots.
I’m worried. What can I do to ensure my ballot doesn’t get lost in the mail? When should I mail it?
- request your ballot early,
- mail it back early or,
- drop off your ballot in a designated drop box or at your local election office.
(Check your state and local rules first, of course.)
Acting early has another benefit: it flattens “the ballot request curve” and prevents your local election officials or post office from being flooded with last-minute demands.
The Postal Service’s official recommendation is to mail in your ballot at least seven days ahead of your state’s deadlines. Depending on your state, however, this may not be sufficient.
I’d rather just use a drop box to vote. Are drop boxes safe and fair?
Yes. Drop boxes have been used for years in elections and — when best practices are followed — they are secure alternatives to mailing your ballot or casting it in person.
There is no evidence that drop boxes benefit one party more than the other, but they have been shown to increase turnout at least a bit.
Given the pandemic and decreasing confidence in the USPS to deliver ballots on time, drop boxes are likely to be more popular this year. Manufacturers of the boxes have reported increased demand. The boxes are heavy — in the hundreds of pounds — and bolted to the ground much like ATMs. Tampering with them is difficult, and there have been no reported successful cases.
How common is vote-by-mail fraud?
Not very common at all. It is accepted among political scientists who study the issue that vote-by-mail fraud is slightly more susceptible to fraud than in-person voting. For example, in North Carolina the results of the 2018 congressional race were invalidated after officials discovered a Republican campaign consultant had orchestrated a scheme to collect and manipulate ballots. Such violations are often caught because of the clear security measures states have set up around voting by mail, enabling people to track their ballots and requiring officials to verify signatures.
At the same time, voter fraud is exceedingly rare across the board. Colorado, which conducts its election entirely by mail, referred only 0.0027% of ballots for investigation in 2018.
–Jessica Huseman, Maryam Jameel and Ryan McCarthy, ProPublica
James M. Mejuto says
Are there any ‘drop-boxes’ here in Palm Coast,FL.?
If so, I would use one instead of mailing-in my ballot .
Land of no turn signals says says
What a joke it’s no wonder every year they are in the hole.Been to the P.C. post office ? Try calling there nobody ever answers the phone.I print my shipping labels at home with tracking in which is not important because 50% of the time they don’t scan it in or when it leaves.Pay extra for 3 day shipping and 6 day’s later it gets to it’s destination ask them to refund the extra fee for 3 day and they laugh in your face and say it’s not guaranteed.They are federal employees so they are lifers with no worries.
CB from PC says
I quit the P.O. after 4 months some 42 years ago after realizing my brain would atrify from the monotony. Most of my co-workers coped with either alcohol or dope.
Don’t know about the substance issues currently in the PC P.O., but the quality of service does really suck.
Trump’s plan is to disrupt or stop the Mail service in the Blue areas of the Country, so the Blue Ballots will not be Counted. Removing the mail sorting machines in those areas can do that. The postmark cancellation stamp can also be stopped. How many mail sorting machines have been removed? Most of the Red areas of the Country will still have normal mail service.
Only Me says
This is a disgrace to the US Post Office which is not a business but is part of the US Government. Donald Trump had his buddy DeJoy sabotage the US Post Office because he feared mail-in ballots would cause him to do, which is how he and his wife have always been voting.
The reason Donald Trump is spreading the rumor that mail-in ballots can be rigged is an absolute lie. The reason he is spreading that propaganda is because him and his buddy Putin can’t cheat at the election which he had Putin do in 2016 and wants him to help again in 2020.
Our election board if you are afraid to mail your ballot you can drop it off to their office or they also have a drop off box right outside their office and they say they empty it several times a day.
According to the USPS website, they process and deliver 472.1 million pieces of mail per day, not year, per day. Even if 1/3 of the US population vote by mail, that’s only 100 million mail in votes over the election season. Great people work at the USPS and I think they will be just fine and deliver 99.9 percent of the mail on time to be counted by election officials. As usual, the Federal government is making a problem where a problem doesn’t exist. It’s what they do best. And you want these same people in charge of your healthcare? That will work out great.
KD Striet says
mail 7 days Before?
what a joke , I mailed a letter from FB to New aorleans and it took 2.5 weeks to get there… Then I recently was out of town and mailed a letter to the same person from Mississippi to New Orlaens, That took 3 weeks…
Both letters were addressed inside and out…and very legible handwriting with the proper amount of postage… It took years till i guess he quit or changed routes , our FB (beachside) carrier that couldn’t manage to shut the doors On the mailboxes all over town. Of course I wouldn’t know, I live on Oak Place..And we have been begging fine, letter writing, Emailing ,
Setting up meetings with our local postmaster, escalating our desire to get mail delivered to our mailboxes in front of our house is like everyone else as far as to Washington DC. To no avail. So far, now we have put it in Mr. Dejoys lap…I don’t believe the United States post office could find their behinds With two hands and a flashlight. Don’t blame it on Covid, their service has sucked way before Covid…Now they just get an excuse
Yet another attempt by trump to play the only way he has his whole life – cheat .
The post office yes needs reforms , this however is not the time to screw with this institution . It smells pure meddling .
Look , trumpism is evil , needs to be squashed. Although all Americans should be concerned about losing our democracy , unfortunately too many don’t .
The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, signed into law by Nixon, states: “The United States Postal Service shall be operated as a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States, authorized by the Constitution, created by Act of Congress, and supported by the people. The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities. The costs of establishing and maintaining the Postal Service shall not be apportioned to impair the overall value of such service to the people.”
Yeah I remember the good old days when Obama was president, and the post office was failing then, but most of you said NOTHING. Some of you complaining said why do we even need a post office in the 21st century………..funny how things change.
The Obama administration put together a panel that made recommendations to reorganize the post office, cut costs and make it more efficient. The report outlined the high costs of providing mail service in the rural areas of the Country and recommended closing over 2,500 underutilized post offices. The closing of the post offices in primarily rural areas was met with high opposition. The politicians in those areas (Primarily Republican) blocked all reorganization measures.
The post office has been bleeding money fir years. Now they try to stop the bleeding but the postal union will fight you in every step. Just feed the crying mouth more money and everything will be fine. That’s what the democrats want to do. Stop the bleeding and bring the poorly run postal service in line. Either fix it or let it be privatized. You can’t just letting it lose billions. Of course, that is the federal governments way. Anything the government runs is a joke. At least the postal union doesn’t tell you, “it’s for the kids,” like the teachers union always says.