The United States Postal Service will pause its cost-cutting policies after the recent moves sparked controversy and intensified fears that such measures might undermine the US elections this November.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said Tuesday in a statement that “to avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded.”
DeJoy’s announcement comes as changes to USPS’s operations faced increasing pressure from lawmakers, particularly Democrats, and voting-rights groups and the public, which are happening against the backdrop of President Donald Trump waging a campaign against mail-in voting.
As Recode’s Adam Clark Estes reported, those budget-slashing policies included limiting overtime, reducing the number of mail trucks, and decommissioning sorting machines, all of which had the potential effect of slowing mail and deliveries of everything from packages to prescription drugs. DeJoy and the USPS have defended these changes, saying they’re necessary to keep the Postal Service sustainable in the long term. The Postal Service has for years faced serious financial problems, but those problems have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
But as President Donald Trump continues to attack mail-in voting, some have accused DeJoy — a Trump ally who took on the postmaster job in June — of purposefully disrupting postal service at the president’s behest in such a way that threatens to disenfranchise some Americans, especially as election officials anticipate an influx of vote-by-mail because of the pandemic. The USPS had already warned 46 states that it might not be able to deliver ballots to election officials in time to be counted, which these slashes to service could make even worse.
DeJoy stood by his stated longer-term goals but said he would delay the reforms in response to public concerns about the November elections. “I believe significant reforms are essential to that objective, and work toward those reforms will commence after the election,” DeJoy said in his statement. “In the meantime, there are some long-standing operational initiatives — efforts that predate my arrival at the Postal Service — that have been raised as areas of concern as the nation prepares to hold an election in the midst of a devastating pandemic.”
DeJoy didn’t specify exactly which initiatives he was referring to do, but he did offer reassurances. He said retail hours at post offices will remain the same; mail processing facilities will remain open; overtime will continue to be approved; and “mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes will remain where they are.” It is not clear whether the blue boxes removed or mail processing equipment already in the process of being decommissioned will be brought back online. (Vox reached out to the USPS for clarification and will update if we hear back.)
DeJoy said that, effective October 1, the USPS will “engage standby resources,” as necessary, to satisfy an increase in demand. He also said that he is expanding a task force on election mail and will bring in postal unions and management to help coordinate with state and local election officials.
DeJoy is still expected to testify before a Senate committee on Friday and a House committee next week. House Democrats are also returning early from recess to pass an emergency bill that would put any operational changes on hold and deliver the Post Office a $25 billion infusion in cash. Some state attorneys general have also initiated lawsuits to block the changes at the agency.
“The very fact that he felt he had to issue it is a testament to the enormous blowback he’s getting,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA), a member of the House Oversight Committee, told the Washington Post. But, he pointed out, there are still many outstanding questions about what this pause means — and what the Post Office is actually doing to be prepared for these 2020 elections.
DeJoy’s reassurances are necessary. But Trump isn’t helping the situation.
The Postal Service was in bad financial shape before the coronavirus. The pandemic — and the prospect of having millions more Americans voting by mail — has only made its issues more salient. Fixing the USPS will require real reform and restructuring, though Democrats and Republicans differ greatly on what needs to be done and how to do it. First, though, the Post Office has to simply work — for the elections, but also for everything else Americans count on it for.
“If you think of the analogy of a house, it needs to be remodeled,” Arthur B. Sackler, manager of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, whose members include not only Amazon and eBay but also catalog and greeting card companies, told Recode. “And, at the same time, this house you’re remodeling, the roof is on fire. So you’ve got to put the fire out first before you can remodel.”
And there is one person who has been adding fuel to that particular fire: Donald Trump. The Postal Service has always been a target for the president, though his previous complaints tended to be about Amazon and packages.
Lately, however, he has been fixated on mail-in voting. The president, lagging in the polls, has relentlessly tried to cast the very common practice as somehow rife with voter fraud — never mind that he and his wife, Melania, look like they’re going vote via mail-in ballots themselves. Trump and many Republican allies seem to believe that anything that increases access to voting would favor Democrats, including a surge in mail-in voting. But, at least when it comes to mail-in voting, the evidence on that is a bit more complicated and doesn’t factor in the unprecedented circumstances of voting in a pandemic.
Experts say allegations of widespread fraud are unfounded, and instances of electoral fraud in general are vanishingly rare. Still, states can employ simple policies to further increase the security and integrity of the vote. That said, such policies often require delivering states more resources, which Trump and Republicans have also been reluctant to give.
That includes money for the Post Office. “They want three and a half billion dollars for something that’ll turn out to be fraudulent, that’s election money basically,” Trump said last week. “They want three and a half billion dollars for the mail-in votes. Universal mail-in ballots. They want $25 billion, billion, for the Post Office. Now they need that money in order to make the Post Office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,”
Trump tried to tone down his criticism later, saying Monday that he’s encouraged officials to “speed up” the mail, though he has not yet embraced any clear policies on what that might look like.
DeJoy in his statement Tuesday sought to reassure people that the Post Office is prepared to handle even an increased volume of election mail in November. “The American public should know that this is our number one priority between now and election day. The 630,000 dedicated women and men of the Postal Service are committed, ready and proud to meet this sacred duty,” DeJoy said.
But Trump’s campaign against voting by mail — which 31 million Americans, Democrats as well as Republicans, did in 2018 — may have already increased suspicion of the mail-in voting process. And it runs the risk of turning mail-in voting into a partisan issue, which may make it even more difficult for states, and the USPS, to be prepared for Election Day.
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