In 2016, the voter registration deadlines in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina happened to fall around the same date that Hurricane Matthew, the first Category 5 storm to hit the Atlantic in almost a decade, was projected to make a catastrophic landfall.
The Saturday before the hurricane was due to hit, Tammy Patrick’s phone rang. Ronald Stroman, No. 2 at the U.S. Postal Service, warned that local post offices would be closed during the storm and wanted to know if he should send postal carriers to Red Cross tents to postmark voter registration forms.
“My god, there’s a hurricane coming and the deputy of the U.S. Postal Service is on top of when voter registration deadlines are,” Patrick, a senior adviser at the nonprofit Democracy Fund Voice, recalls thinking. “Under previous postmasters, the Postal Service literally moved mountains to make sure things got here on time. So when I say I’ve heard a change in tone, I’m talking about a fairly dramatic shift.”
As the 2020 election approaches, the new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, has prioritized budget cuts over getting people their mail on time. This could imperil voting by mail, which is expected to happen at unprecedented levels during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But for all the attention the public has paid to mail-in ballots, a well-functioning USPS is equally critical to voting in person.
Because U.S. elections are so decentralized — with thousands of localized rules, deadlines, ballots and precincts — the post office, as a system that successfully connects the entire nation, is a singularly important part.
The mail is how most voters receive official confirmation of their registration and notices about their polling places. The mail is how ballots get from the printer’s office to those polling places, and how those polling places are staffed. (Usually, the last steps to becoming a poll worker involve receiving an official appointment by mail and responding by mail.) The mail has to achieve all of this on time. Just one missed deadline in a chain of deadlines — for registration, notification, ballot delivery — can disenfranchise a voter.
The mail, in other words, helps run U.S. elections. And there are fears that this year, it will fall down on the job.
“This is the first time I’ve heard this tone around election mail,” said Patrick, who is an expert on best practices for voting by 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. For many voters, one day is too late.”
This summer, DeJoy exacerbated a massive slowdown in the mail by banning extra trips to deliver late mail and by implementing a confusing overtime policy that has left many mail-sorting facilities short-staffed and scrambling — all of which he justified by saying these actions would save the agency billions of dollars.
The Postal Service’s head of elections sowed doubt about whether the post office would honor a longtime, informal arrangement to deliver absentee ballots to voters as fast as possible, no matter what postage rates states can afford to pay.
The agency has since reassured states it would deliver election mail speedily and is assembling a task force to help states troubleshoot problems with voting by mail. But time is running out. Some states have already begun to mail ballots.
To top it all off, President Donald Trump has said he opposes more funding for the Postal Service because “that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting,” something he clearly views as an impediment to his reelection. He has also encouraged his supporters to try to vote twice to test mail-in voting systems.
“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.
For that dedication to break down now could cause a disaster.
All told, thousands of precincts across the country rely on millions of pieces of mail to arrive on time and to their proper destinations. During elections, some local post offices cease to be simply a link in the chain and come to more closely resemble an arm of the election.
Amber McReynolds recalled how, in the 13 years she was the director of elections in Denver, postal carriers and election officials coordinated so that election workers were ready to start counting absentee ballots the minute the post office had sorted them; there was never a wasted moment.
McReynolds remembered at least two occasions when Denver didn’t have money to pay the Postal Service — someone in city hall had simply forgotten to refill the postal account — and yet the post office sent out huge shipments of election mail anyway, so that it wouldn’t arrive late. Once, that involved postcards that told voters their polling places; another time, a giant booklet that explained Colorado and Denver’s ballot initiatives.
“We had this amazing working relationship,” McReynolds said. “They knew our birthdays, and we brought them cookies.”
It sounds silly, McReynolds conceded, but those relationships matter because local officials so rarely have all the resources they need to run elections smoothly. For example, right now, there are roughly 10,000 different post office accounts set up by countless local election officials to pay for official election mail. Congress could establish a single account for the entire country to use as it does for election mail being sent to the U.S. Military. But Congress hasn’t, and so sometimes, the system has to run on generosity.
Patrick has seen her fair share of close calls, too.
Over the years, the printing companies that make absentee ballots have regularly printed envelopes with the wrong barcodes, causing the USPS’s automatic sorting machines to send ballots to the wrong cities and counties. In most cases, she said, postal carriers have to step in and sort out the mess by hand.
In the 2018 primary season, the Postal Service saved the day when a truck carrying pallets of absentee ballots bound for Provo, Utah, broke down out of state. The printer was trucking ballots into Utah instead of mailing them from its factory to save on postage. The pallets showed up late on a Friday night, unmarked, and postal officials had to race around their sorting plant to identify the missing ballots and rush them out to voters.
Within 24 hours, every vote-by-mail voter in Provo had their ballot.
“It wasn’t even their truck. It was their customer trying to save money” at the Postal Service’s expense, said Patrick. “And yet it’s been that kind of commitment election officials have come to expect from the post office.”
The USPS has already had to scramble to solve election crises created by the global pandemic. This April, COVID-19 sickened nearly 400 postal workers at three mail sorting facilities in Detroit and delayed thousands of primary ballots bound for voters in northwest Ohio. After election officials got wind, just a week before Ohio’s primary, the USPS raced truckloads of ballots to its Ohio sorting plants and assigned overtime and investigators to make extra sweeps for ballots that had been left behind.
“They moved fast and got it done,” said someone involved in the election. “There were stories, particularly in big counties, of literally 20,000 ballots pulling up in a truck on Election Day from the Postal Service.”
But some officials who were instrumental in solving the problem no longer work at the agency or have been sidelined. One was David E. Williams, who was reportedly swept out of day-to-day operations in August when DeJoy gave the agency a leadership shakeup. Another was Stroman, the former second-in-command at USPS who offered to send postal carriers to hurricane shelters; he resigned in May.
The post office does not always perform perfectly in a crisis. This spring, in New York, state officials abruptly relaxed the rules for voting absentee, leading to a more than eightfold jump in absentee voters compared to the 2016 primary — 1.2 million versus 157,000 — for which few were prepared.
Hundreds of voters may have received ballots too late to vote. At a post office in Brooklyn, workers failed to place a dated postmark on thousands of ballots, causing the New York City Board of Elections to declare about 12,500 ballots invalid (for votes to count, they had to be postmarked on or before Election Day). Two congressional races went undecided for six weeks.
Even this debacle, though, was not the incontrovertible failure of the mail that skeptics made it out to be. (A Wall Street Journal editorial approvingly quoted state officials who blamed the Postal Service and warned that November may bring “a mail-vote debacle the country might come to regret.”)
The delay in getting ballots to voters had a lot to do with the fact that the deadline to request an absentee ballot was too close to Election Day. The night before the primary, New York City elections officials dropped 30,000 blank ballots in the mail. The post office raced them out the door and assigned workers to postmark by hand the thousands of completed ballots that would be arriving at the last minute.
As for the ballots from Brooklyn that were missing postmarks, a federal judge later ruled that the state must count most of them. Because 97% of those ballots arrived at the Board of Elections within two days of the primary, the judge reasoned, it was a fact that they had been mailed on or before Election Day. In other words, the Postal Service had still performed its core function — delivering the mail — with enough reliability to make up for a cascade of other problems.
Postal officials have promised to be just as dedicated in the general election.
“We’re still going to do those things that we’ve done, to try everything we can, when we have a rescue situation, to make that rescue happen. We are completely committed to doing these things,” Justin Glass, the director of the USPS’s election mail operations, said at a recent panel on the coming election. “Our employees take pride in delivering for boards of elections when we have those issues, and those things are going to continue.”
The agency’s ability to assign overtime, he added, has not really been cut. “But what we’re looking at is, it’s gotta be smart. We gotta have smart overtime.”
Voting rights advocates say the post office has started working more closely with election officials to prepare for November, leaving them more reassured. But they still find themselves on high alert and wondering if the agency has assigned enough staff, behind the scenes, for the task ahead.
“It’s something we’re watching very closely, those of us that have worked in this space for a long time,” said McReynolds. “What is the post office’s plan to support election officials?”
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