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Exclusive: Senate Democrats want the USPS to explain how it’s going to handle vote-by-mail in November

The USPS is poised to play a pivotal role in making sure ballots are delivered on time — and counted — this fall.

Senators Speak To Media After Weekly Policy Luncheons
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) listens at a news conference following the Democrats’ weekly policy luncheon at the Capitol on June 23, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Senate Democrats, in a letter, urged the US Postal Service to explain how it plans to handle the influx of ballots it’s expected to field as millions of people vote by mail this fall.

The letter, which was exclusively provided to Vox, calls on USPS to brief Congress on its plans for processing a staggering number of ballots and preventing voter disenfranchisement.

“While problems with vote-by-mail can result from a variety of factors, staffing shortages and delays at Postal Service processing facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to delays that harm the use of election mail,” writes Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, alongside several other Democrats. “If mail ballots arrive late and are uncounted, some voters may be disenfranchised.”

This letter follows a report from the Washington Post, which uncovered an internal USPS memo mulling plans that could slow delivery services as a way to address higher costs. “If the plants run late, they will keep the mail for the next day,” one line in the memo reads.

Such delays could have a significant impact on the election both when it comes to making sure mail-in ballot forms reach voters in time, and ensuring that those same ballots reach election authorities ahead of specific deadlines so they’re counted. In the Florida primary, for example, more than 18,000 ballots were not counted because they arrived after the state’s deadline, an issue that many voters may encounter in November if the postal system gets overwhelmed. A study by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel also found that hundreds of absentee ballots never made it to voters during Wisconsin’s primary, partly due to mail delivery problems.

This specific issue takes on new urgency this year as a historic number of voters are expected to use mail-in ballots to participate in the electoral process given the public health risks posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. During the Pennsylvania primary, for example, 1.5 million voters used mail-in ballots, compared to 80,000 who did in 2018, Democrats note. And if numbers for the general election hold or surpass that of 2016, at least 130 million people are estimated to vote overall, guaranteeing a huge wave of mail-in voting as health concerns about physical polling places persist.

Democrats want more details on staffing and timing

Among the key questions Democrats have for USPS: They’d like more information on the number of staff USPS is putting in place to coordinate mail-in ballot logistics, and they’re interested in how USPS would be able to keep up the pace of processing ballots if one of its locations suffers a coronavirus outbreak.

One of the unknowns concerning mail-in ballots is how long it will take states to receive and tally up the votes, a delay that could mean the final outcome won’t be clear for a week or even longer. Ensuring that ballots are delivered expediently is a central purview of the USPS, particularly because there are strict deadlines for when mail-in votes can be received in order to be counted.

Voting rights experts, including at the Brennan Center, have argued that some of these deadlines should be relaxed in November to enable as many people to participate in the process as possible — and to make up for possible USPS snafus. “Mail-in ballot receipt deadlines should be extended to account for delays in U.S. Mail, ballot drop box retrieval, or other administrative processing delays caused by Covid-19,” the Brennan Center’s Wendy Weiser and Max Feldman write.

As this week’s letter indicates, lawmakers still have questions about whether USPS is equipped to take on the central role it will play this fall.

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