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Postmaster General Louis DeJoy promises to prioritize mail-in ballots, but questions about delays remain

He called claims that Trump was meddling in the USPS “outrageous.”

USPS Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is sworn in for a virtual Senate hearing about the pandemic on August 21, 2020, in Washington, DC.
US Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy promised a Senate committee Friday that election mail will be prioritized this November, and that he was “extremely highly confident” that ballots sent a week before Election Day would arrive on time and be counted.

“We will scour every plant each night leading up to Election Day — very, very confident,” DeJoy said Friday, responding to a question from Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT).

DeJoy’s answer was one of a number of assurances he gave lawmakers on the Republican-led Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about the United States Postal Service’s ability to handle the huge influx of mail-in ballots expected during this year’s election due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The hearing comes amid reports that recent cost-cutting measures DeJoy implemented at the USPS have produced a “crippling backlog” of letters and packages, and fears that could undermine the November election and result in millions of Americans’ mail-in ballots going uncounted.

But despite DeJoy’s commitments to prioritize election mail, he didn’t really elaborate on the post office’s plan to do that — or explain how recent changes, including the decommissioning of hundreds of mail-sorting machines, could potentially affect not just the on-time delivery of ballots, but also bills and medications.

DeJoy is a major Trump and Republican donor and former logistics executive who only took over the USPS on June 16. Since then, he’s initiated a series of cost-cutting measures that postal workers and unions said have caused delays in delivering the mail.

As Vox’s Adam Clark Estes reported, those measures included changes to mail transportation, new restrictions on overtime hours, and the decommissioning of about 671 USPS sorting machines, which can process 21.4 million pieces of flat mail (which includes paper ballots) per hour. Hundreds of blue mail-collection boxes have also been removed around the country.

The pandemic has also exacerbated problems throughout the Postal Service (which predate DeJoy), as workers fall sick or need to take leave for child care and more resources are allocated to supplying personal protective gear.

And, in July, the USPS sent letters to 46 states and Washington, DC, warning that it might not be able to deliver all ballots by Election Day, even as the number of people expected to vote by mail doubles.

All of this, combined with President Donald Trump’s baseless claims that mail-in voting increases the potential for fraud, raised fears that millions of Americans who vote by mail in the November election might be disenfranchised.

In response to Democrats, voting groups, and state attorneys general, DeJoy announced earlier this week that the USPS would halt any further operational changes until after the election “to avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail.” That included keeping mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes where they are, pausing on closing any mail processing facilities, and continuing to approve overtime as needed. DeJoy said he “had no idea” about the removal of the blue collection boxes, but said he’d learned that it was a normal process and that he’d since stopped it ahead of the election.

DeJoy also promised that starting October 1, the USPS would engage “standby resources” to satisfy extra demand. DeJoy also denied speaking to Trump or his campaign about changes to postal operations, calling it “an outrageous claim.”

Yet DeJoy conceded that he will move forward with dramatic cost-saving measures after the election — including raising package rates and curbing discounts for nonprofits, according to the Washington Post. And, most critically, DeJoy said that he would not reverse some of the changes that had already taken place, and would not bring back online the hundreds of USPS mail-sorting machines that have been decommissioned.

“There’s no intention to do that, they’re not needed, sir,” DeJoy said, in response to a question from Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI).

First-class mail has been decreasing since 2001, and the USPS usually does decommission a percentage of these sorting machines each year — though the number of machines taken offline this year far exceeds that of recent years. And postal workers have said that removing these machines could slow down the processing of flat mail.

In one notable exchange, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) asked DeJoy whether he had a detailed plan about how he’s “going to ensure the kind of delivery that Americans count on for voting by mail.” After all, as lawmakers pointed out, voters in some states can start requesting their mail-in ballots as early as September 4, just a few weeks from now.

DeJoy responded that “there are detailed processes that we are going through, they’re going to be expanded plans to that,” adding that he had just expanded the leadership task force on election mail, something he also announced this week. When Hassan pressed for details of the plan by Sunday, DeJoy said he didn’t think he would have a complete plan ready by then but that he’d get back to her.

DeJoy will be back before Congress next week to testify before the House, which may be more tense than Friday’s hearing. House Democrats have a bill to reverse some of the changes DeJoy put in place and to give $25 billion to the USPS. DeJoy said during the Friday hearing that the post office did not need additional funding to deliver mail on Election Day, though he welcomed and urged congressional action on changes to the USPS.

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