The Postal Service Is Not Ready for November

A cracked USPS trunk stuck on a mound of vote by mail ballots

Wisconsin’s April primary election illustrated exactly what could go wrong in an American election during the pandemic. Voters faced long linesconflicting government orders and spikes of the virus.

Wisconsin was only the beginning.

Since then, we have witnessed state after state struggle with the exact same problems.

In Georgia, poll worker shortages, precinct closures and equipment problems yielded hours-long wait times throughout the state.

In Nevada, the last voter in Clark County didn’t cast his ballot until 3:09 a.m.

In Kentucky, we saw alarmingly high rates of absentee ballot rejections.

And in Iowa, after a successful primary election, Republicans changed the law to make voting more difficult in November.

Meanwhile, Trump continues his daily assault on voting from the White House. As the Vote Suppressor-in-Chief, Trump has leveraged his Twitter bully pulpit to sow fear in our elections and to spread disinformation about voting by mail. Most recently, he filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania to block the use of mail-in ballot drop boxes.

As his former senior counsel — and now deputy campaign manager — Justin Clark said on 60 Minutes, “The President views vote by mail as a threat to his election.”

Now, the Trump administration has turned to weakening the United States Postal Service in a cynical effort to keep people from voting.  In April, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) notified Congress that it could run out of money by September. Trump has not only ignored this warning, but is using it as an opportunity to maximize his voter suppression agenda.

After the resignation of USPS’s lead coordinator of election mail, Trump appointed a top campaign donor, Louis DeJoy, to serve as Postmaster General. This appointment led to the retirement of some of the Postal Service’s non-partisan staff, including Deputy Postmaster General Ronald Stroman.

Stroman recently expressed grave concern about USPS delays, saying “it is highly likely” that absentee ballots of “at least tens of thousands of voters” will arrive after Election Day and will not be counted…”

Knowing this, DeJoy has worked tirelessly to exacerbate the delays. In the name of “efficiency,” he recently approved a sweeping set of operational changes, including “prohibiting overtime pay, shutting down sorting machines early, and requiring letter carriers to leave mail behind when necessary to avoid extra trips or late delivery on routes.”

We’re already seeing the negative impact of these agency-wide changes on states’ ability to administer vote by mail for the November election. In a July 31 letter to Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, USPS General Counsel Thomas Marshall warned of a “mismatch” between the state’s vote by mail deadlines and USPS “delivery standards” that could lead to some ballots not being counted on time. He goes on to say that USPS “cannot adjust its delivery standards to accommodate the requirements of state election laws.” This letter is an early warning that USPS has abdicated its responsibility to facilitate a free and fair election. Now, states face a logistical and financial crisis — how to provide vote by mail as a reliable option to voters without risking mass disenfranchisement.

USPS workers were told that “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.”

In the wake of DeJoy’s changes, a new organizational chart revealed that 23 postal executives were reassigned or displaced. Unsurprisingly, the new structure “centralizes power around DeJoy” and disregards “decades worth of institutional postal knowledge.”

A new USPS Inspector General report raises additional cause for alarm.

The report spells out, in chilling detail, exactly what could go wrong in November if states don’t take swift measures to safeguard their elections. “We identified potential nationwide issues integrating election offices vote by mail processes with the Postal Service processes which could impact future elections,” the inspector general stated.

“Nationally, we noted potential concerns with the deadlines set by the states to request absentee ballots, ballots postmarks, ballots mailed without mail tracking technology, and the ratio of Political and Election Mail coordinators to election offices in certain locations.”

The report provided several examples of issues that have already occurred because the Postal Service and election officials weren’t prepared for the massive influx of mail-in ballots:

  • Three tubs of 749 undelivered voter ballots were discovered after the polls closed on Election Day
  • A computer glitch caused 2,700 requested ballots to never be sent to voters
  • 390 mailed ballots had varying postmark issues that required Postal Service workers to help review

Reminder: the report only covered Milwaukee — an overwhelmingly Democratic city with a large Black population.

Overall, the report made clear that in states where voters can request absentee ballots within seven days of Election Day, it’s highly unlikely that voters will be able to return mail-in ballots on time. And in states where voters can request absentee ballots within three days of election day, it will be basically impossible for some voters to return mail ballots on time.

While the pandemic is putting unforeseen pressures on the Postal Service, this is not the first time the agency has struggled to deliver ballots. In 2018, more than 7,700 mail-in ballots in south Florida counties weren’t accepted because they arrived after the state’s 7 p.m. Election Day deadline. The same year at least 3,175 absentee ballots were rejected in Arizona for arriving after the state’s Election Day deadline. Experts in Arizona found that “in almost every election cycle since 2008, important federal or state races have been decided by a very small number of votes, less than the rate of late rejected absentees.”

Despite these facts, states are still not adjusting their ballot receipt deadlines.

And this is exactly what Donald Trump wants.

He suggested that “only the votes that can be tallied on Election Day should count.” And as a recent Washington Post article pointed out, “Guess which key presidential swing states have such provisions invalidating ballots that arrive after Election Day? All of them do, with the exception of North Carolina.”

This suggestion is a direct attack on my legal team’s Four Pillars litigation, where we are fighting to replace Election Day receipt deadlines with postmarked by Election Day deadlines. We continue to insist that community groups be permitted to collect and deliver sealed mail-in ballots. Without these changes, we have a system that will disenfranchise large numbers of voters. Trump recognizes this and it is why he is doing everything in his power to run the Postal Service into the ground.

The mounting crisis facing the USPS is just another layer of Trump’s voter suppression strategy. We already know that Trump believes that my team’s three dozen voting rights cases — all aimed at protecting voters and voting rights in 2020 — are the greatest threat to his reelection. As he recently said, “My biggest risk is that we don’t win lawsuits. We have many lawsuits going all over. And if we don’t win those lawsuits, I think — I think it puts the election at risk.”

Voters can’t be forced to cross their fingers and hope that their ballots will count. Our job between now and Election Day is to make sure that Americans keep up the fight for voting rights, including making sure all ballots cast by mail are counted.

We must win these lawsuits, because this November, Democracy is on the Docket.

*This article was updated on August 10, 2020 to reflect recent Trump campaign staffing changes and new developments with the Postal Service.*