What the Post Office Needs to Survive a Pandemic Election

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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.

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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?

Yes.

  • 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?

You should:

  • 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.

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