On Tuesday, the U.S. Postmaster General responded to public outrage over changes that jeopardized Americans’ ability to vote by mail by saying he would suspend changes to the postal service until after the general election.
Voting rights advocates want him to prove it.
“I definitely do think that the changes made were a voter suppression tool,” said Celina Stewart, the chief counsel and director of litigation at the League of Women Voters of the United States. “The announcement alone doesn’t alleviate anything. It has to be coupled with some action across the country to mitigate the damage that’s been done, the slowdown that’s been happening across the country.”
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a major Trump donor who has invested millions with for-profit companies that compete with the U.S. Postal Service, had overseen massive disruptions to the USPS since his appointment in May. Chief among them were slashing overtime for postal carriers, barring carriers from making multiple trips on their route in one day to ensure on-time delivery, and removing hundreds of machines that sort massive amounts of mail electronically.
DeJoy framed the changes as cost-cutting moves. But a broad coalition of Democrats, democracy advocates and postal worker unions accused DeJoy of trying to undermine voting in the upcoming presidential election, when millions more Americans are expected to vote by mail because of the COVID-19 pandemic. President Donald Trump said last week that he saw a functioning postal service as a threat to his reelection.
On Tuesday, DeJoy said he would halt all changes “to avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail.”
His announcement, though, lacked any details about the changes that have already taken place. He did not say whether the USPS will replace the blue collection boxes and hundreds of sorting machines it removed and, in some cases, destroyed. On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters that DeJoy told her he has no plans to do so: “The Postmaster General frankly admitted that he had no intention of replacing the sorting machines, blue mailboxes and other key mail infrastructure.”
DeJoy also stopped short of definitively restoring overtime hours, saying they would be approved “as needed.” Postal carriers rely on working overtime in order to make the multiple trips necessary to deliver mail on time, and the ban on overtime has contributed to the massive backlog plaguing the postal system right now.
Without details on how USPS will resolve its problems, and coupled with Trump’s continued attacks on voting by mail, advocates fear the damage that has already been done — just as the COVID-19 pandemic has made it potentially dangerous for millions of citizens to vote in person.
“To actually fix this, they’re going to have to come out and be transparent about what the plan is,” Stewart said.
“We’ve shaken people's faith in a historically trusted agency. There’s some work to be done, not only to restore people’s faith and trust, but in order that people feel safe in casting their vote by mail. I don’t think you can just put a Band-Aid on that.”
It’s not even clear DeJoy’s Tuesday announcement, for all its shortcomings, will even be fully implemented. A post office in Grand Rapids, Michigan, reportedly began to dismantle its mail sorting machine on Wednesday, an investigative reporter learned, one day after DeJoy’s announcement.
On Tuesday, notwithstanding the announcement, the League of Women Voters and other voter advocacy groups sued DeJoy and the postal service, demanding they take all the steps necessary to reverse the damage.
The ongoing USPS drama has also created another, potentially even bigger, problem for voting by mail: damaging voters’ confidence that it will work.
“We’ve shaken people’s faith in a historically trusted agency,” Stewart said. “There’s some work to be done, not only to restore people’s faith and trust, but in order that people feel safe in casting their vote by mail. I don’t think you can just put a Band-Aid on that.”
The good news for voters is that the postal service is certainly capable of handling a massive shift to voting by mail, even during a pandemic when millions are expected to mail ballots rather than cast them in person. It has the capacity. Dozens of postal workers have died from COVID-19; processing centers have had to shut down so workers can quarantine; and the post office is handling a tidal wave of extra packages due to a shift in online shopping. And yet the system remains reliable — provided its leaders act as a help and not a hindrance, experts said.
“Even in its relatively diminished state, it’s putting out about 2.3 to 2.5 billion pieces of mail a week,” said Art Sackler, who represents a group of businesses that send large volumes of mail. “If every registered voter in the country were to vote, all in one week, that’s a blip. In theory they could have no trouble sorting, delivering, and processing on time.”
What USPS currently lacks, said advocates, is a firm commitment from leadership to making sure it plays its part. While it’s the states’ job to ensure they set realistic deadlines to request and return mail-in ballots, USPS must make sure states have accurate information that informs their deadlines and practices, said Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser at the nonprofit Democracy Fund Voice and an expert in best practices in voting by mail. (Voters who plan to cast a ballot by mail can help ensure that their vote counts by requesting a mail-in ballot as early as their state allows.)
But the message from USPS leadership this year is spreading doubt that the post office will be a partner in this year’s election, including whether it will prioritize the quick delivery of election mail the way it has in the past.
“For years, we’ve worked to establish an understanding at the agency of their role in delivering democracy for tens of millions of voters who have their ballot handed to them by a postal carrier and not a poll worker,” Patrick said. “This is the first time I’ve heard this tone around election mail … It’s a massive shift from the overall vision of, ‘the mail must go through’ to ‘the mail can wait.’”
“The mail can’t wait,” she continued. “For many voters, one day is too late.”