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A postal employee carrying a package from their van.
Some say that recent delays in the mail are part of an effort by President Trump to sabotage mail-in ballots in the November election.
Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

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What’s wrong with the mail

As November nears, the Postal Service is facing a crisis that could interfere with the election.

Adam Clark Estes is the technology editor of Vox. Prior to joining Vox, Estes covered the intersection of technology and politics at Gizmodo, Vice, and the Atlantic.

The United States Postal Service is dealing with crippling backlogs of letters and packages. A postmaster in upstate New York recently told their union that the regular mail was two days behind and, for the first time in their career, Express Priority Mail was not going out on time. Despite a surge in package delivery during the pandemic, postal workers are no longer able to work overtime, and fewer mail trucks are on the road. If your own mail seems delayed or unpredictable, it’s not a one-off problem.

Mail service has been disrupted nationwide in recent weeks due to a series of factors. While the USPS has been suffering financially for years, the coronavirus pandemic has delivered an existential threat to the agency. The self-funded Postal Service has been seeking billions in aid from Congress — an effort that’s been stymied by President Trump, who has long had a contentious relationship with the USPS and has pushed to privatize it. And now, the USPS is adjusting to cost-cutting policies put in place by its new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, who is a top Trump donor and longtime Republican fundraiser.

The policies include eliminating overtime for postal workers, limiting the number of mail trucks, and removing hundreds of sorting machines from postal facilities, including those in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida. DeJoy also implemented a major restructuring of the Postal Service that, according to the Washington Post, “deemphasizes decades’ worth of institutional postal knowledge” and “centralizes power around DeJoy.” These abrupt changes have led to delays in the delivery of everything from paychecks to prescriptions. There’s also widespread concern that these delays could interfere with the November election, when a record number of people are expected to vote by mail due to the pandemic.

Given the facts and the president’s ongoing public criticism of mail-in voting, many are accusing Trump of intentionally kneecapping the Postal Service in an attempt to sabotage the election, as he trails Joe Biden in the polls. In mid-August, Trump himself admitted to holding back funding for the USPS in order to limit mail-in voting. Soon thereafter, news emerged that the Postal Service had sent a letter to 46 states and Washington, DC, in late July warning that it could not guarantee their mail-in ballots would be delivered in time to be counted.

Democrats in Congress are investigating the new postmaster’s policies and working to secure funding for the USPS. Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the House back early from its summer recess to vote on a Postal Service bill, and DeJoy has agreed to testify before the Oversight Committee on August 24. “Lives, livelihoods and the life of our American Democracy are under threat from the President,” she said in a letter that referred to DeJoy as a “complicit crony.” Meanwhile, two Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee are urging the FBI to open a criminal investigation into DeJoy, and at least six state attorneys general are exploring lawsuits to prevent the Trump administration from delaying mail ahead of the election.

Postmaster General DeJoy responded to criticism of his new initiatives in an August 18 statement. Pointing broadly to working toward “significant reforms” of the Postal Service, he said, “To avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded.” The statement also said that postal workers’ overtime would be “approved as needed” and that processing equipment and collection boxes “will remain where they are.” DeJoy did not say whether any actions taken under earlier policies would be reversed or whether any of the dozens of sorting machines already removed from postal facilities would be returned before the election.

All of this means the future of the Postal Service is in jeopardy. It was actually in big trouble months ago, when postal leaders warned that, without intervention from Congress, the USPS could run out of cash as soon as September. What’s happening now is even more urgent. Decisions being made by Trump allies are leading to delays that could motivate the Postal Service’s biggest customers to send their packages through competitors like UPS and FedEx. And according to some, the strategy could have devastating consequences.

“It is unimaginable to think of an America without the Postal Service,” said John McHugh, chairman of the Package Coalition, a trade group that counts Amazon and eBay as members. “But if things go toward a worst-case scenario in this instance, which is entirely possible, that’s what would have to occur.”

The story of how we got here is complicated, and there is disagreement about what’s really going on. However, according to postal leaders and Democrats, the way to fix the mail in time for the election involves an infusion of cash and an end to the delays. Even then, the Postal Service faces a tough road ahead.

The Postal Service’s controversial new policies, explained

It’s tempting to blame all of the Postal Service’s service problems on the new postmaster general, DeJoy, but it wouldn’t be entirely fair. After years of money problems tied to a decline in certain types of mail and an obligation to prefund its retirement benefits, the USPS suffered a very serious financial blow when the pandemic hit.

Starting in March, the volume of first-class mail began to plummet (though a surge in package delivery has helped make up for that lost revenue). Meanwhile, tens of thousands of postal workers got sick or began quarantining, leading to a labor shortage and the need for more overtime hours. The Postal Service also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on personal protective equipment (PPE) and on retrofitting post offices with more plexiglass and more space for social distancing.

This is why postal leaders asked Congress for $75 billion when the CARES Act was being negotiated in April. (This is not something the USPS likes to do, by the way. It’s been 40 years since the Postal Service took taxpayer dollars.) In response, President Trump called the Postal Service “a joke” and threatened to veto the bill if it included any money for the USPS. Despite the president’s attempts to avoid giving the Postal Service any money at all, the agency ended up making an agreement with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for a $10 billion loan with strict terms.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy wearing a face mask with “United States Postal Service” written on it.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy met with congressional leaders as well as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in the Capitol on August 5.
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images

Postmaster General DeJoy took office in mid-June amid the coronavirus crisis. It’s worth pointing out that DeJoy was not appointed by President Trump. He was appointed by the six members of the Postal Service Board of Governors, all of whom were appointed by Trump. And it was after DeJoy got to work that the mail delays began, according to multiple postal service-related union leaders and trade groups interviewed by Recode.

DeJoy, a former logistics executive with no Postal Service experience, started his new gig by launching a series of pilot programs designed to slash USPS spending. Multiple postal worker unions reported that DeJoy’s policies limited mail transportation, causing mail to be left at the sorting plant for days longer than it normally would. Meanwhile, a crackdown on overtime hours meant that sorting machines are shut down before the day’s work is done. (“If the plants run late, they will keep the mail for the next day,” read one USPS memo obtained by the Washington Post.) The Postal Service also began the process of decommissioning 10 percent of its mail-sorting machines, which are designed to process flat mail, like letters and ballots. As a result, mail is sitting undelivered across the country.

In response to questions about the recent issues, USPS spokesperson David Partenheimer used variations of the word “efficient” six times in explaining how the agency is adjusting its operations. “Of course we acknowledge that temporary service impacts can occur as we redouble our efforts to conform to the current operating plans,” Partenheimer said, “but any such impacts will be monitored and temporary, as the root causes of any issues will be addressed as necessary and corrected as appropriate.”

It’s not entirely clear how temporary the delays will be. In fact, none of the postal workers Recode spoke to were exactly sure what the new policies entailed, since DeJoy and his lieutenants did not communicate the details of the pilot programs to the unions or to individual postmasters.

“In the field, we don’t have the details — only that we can’t approve overtime, only the district manager can,” explained a postmaster who runs a post office in the Northeast and spoke on the condition of anonymity as they’re not authorized to speak to the press. “I’m in a delivery unit, so I can’t speak for delayed mail in a plant. But by cutting the overtime, it would certainly delay a lot of mail.”

Individual managers might be selectively enforcing the new rules, they said, but with such poor communication from DeJoy, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s happening. The postmaster, who is a 20-year veteran of the USPS, added, “Amazon parcels are given priority over everything at a national level.”

None of this confusion has helped DeJoy win any popularity contests in his short tenure as postmaster general.

Some call DeJoy “a crony,” and many are scrutinizing his background and political ties. As a former logistics executive, DeJoy ran companies that counted the USPS as a client, and his family has invested $30.1 million to $75.3 million in USPS competitors or contractors, including UPS. DeJoy is also a celebrated Republican party fundraiser who contributed over $1.5 million to Trump’s campaigns in 2016 and 2020. His wife, Aldona Wos, served as ambassador to Estonia in the George W. Bush administration and has been nominated by President Trump to be the next ambassador to Canada.

Others want to give DeJoy a chance. After all, he did take on a tough job at a struggling agency in the middle of a pandemic.

Postal worker moving packages on and off postal delivery vans.
Postal workers and unions say new policies from the postmaster general restrict overtime and lead to mail being left behind.
Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

“Just to be honest, we’re very suspicious of this new postmaster general. We have a healthy bit of skepticism,” said Jim Sauber, chief of staff for the National Association of Letter Carriers. “But I know my boss and officers are not going to level charges that we can’t substantiate, and we’re not gonna jump to a conclusion until we can get a better fix on this.”

Democratic leaders in Congress seem less accommodating with regard to what DeJoy has done so far. After the new postmaster general confirmed the details of the operational changes to the Postal Service in their early August meeting, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demanded that DeJoy reverse the new policies. The Democrats said this and preserving funds for the Postal Service are essential for a deal on a new coronavirus relief package.

Still, even if the Postal Service does get an infusion of cash — you might call it a bailout — the agency’s future remains uncertain. Whatever damage to the reputation of the USPS that’s being done now stands to affect the broader perception of the agency under the new postmaster general. We might be hearing more about privatizing the Postal Service in the future, whether we like it or not.

Trump’s campaign against voting by mail

Considering DeJoy’s connections to Trump and the Republican Party and the reports of worsening mail delays with the election approaching, many are afraid that the president is plotting to rig the election in November by casting doubt on the dependability of mail-in voting.

“The Trump administration’s ongoing campaign to sabotage the US Postal Service is a direct attack on our democracy,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Operations, which oversees the USPS, told Recode. “Rural and urban, Democrat, Republican, or independent, every American has come to rely on the Postal Service, and our election is increasingly dependent on it. Congress must with one voice and clear action ensure service standards are not allowed to falter.”

Delays and political connections aside, we don’t have much hard evidence of a Trump-led plot to overthrow the Postal Service. It does look bad that the USPS appears to be facing an existential crisis just weeks after a Trump donor took over as postmaster general. It looks worse that the president has spent months attacking the broader use of mail-in voting, even threatening executive action to stop it. But these things don’t quite add up to proof of a conspiracy against the Postal Service.

“The notion that the postmaster general makes decisions concerning the Postal Service at the direction of the president is wholly misplaced and off-base,” Partenheimer, the USPS spokesperson, told Recode. “With regard to election mail, the Postal Service remains fully committed to fulfilling our role in the electoral process when public policymakers choose to utilize the mail as a part of their election system, and to delivering election mail in a timely manner consistent with our operational standards.”

Still, Trump seems to be doing everything he can to undermine American voters’ confidence in mail-in voting. There are so many tweets:

And that might be all he needs to discourage people from voting by mail.

Different states have different laws about how mail-in ballots work. Currently, 34 states — including swing states like Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — require ballots to be received by election authorities by Election Day, so any delay in the mail could lead to untold numbers of votes going uncounted. Rules about when states count the mail-in ballots also vary, so results are bound to be delayed in states like New York, where ballots can only be counted after the polls close. It’s especially discouraging for voters that postal leaders felt the need to warn states that delays around Election Day could be so bad that voters could be disenfranchised.

The Postal Service and postal unions are quick to point out that they take mail-in voting very seriously, and the process for delivering ballots is tried and tested.

“The Postal Service has always given special attention to mail ballots,” said Sauber. “In general, in most places in the country, during election time, if the Postal Service has mail ballots, they move heaven and earth to make sure it’s delivered. They give top priority to the ballots.”

“We’ve been doing mail ballots as postal workers for generations,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union. “It’s been increasing in popularity. In the last election, 31 million people voted by mail. There’s virtually no fraud.”

Individual states can update their laws governing mail-in voting before November. Aware of this fact, the Trump campaign has sued state and local governments across the country over mail-in ballot rules. One suit, in Pennsylvania, argues that mail-in ballot drop boxes — which are designed to handle ballots, look like mailboxes, and are monitored closelyare unconstitutional and should be removed. Another lawsuit from the Trump campaign and other Republicans seeks to overturn a new law in Nevada that would require the state to mail everyone a ballot.

Still, assuming all laws remain as they are, disrupting the Postal Service is an obvious way to hinder the mail-in ballot process. If slowing down the mail isn’t enough on its own, even creating a perception of problems with the mail could be enough to discourage some Americans from mail-in voting. And it looks like Trump is being effective at doing this — perhaps too effective. A June-July poll suggested that some voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan have become so distrustful of mail-in voting that they might rather not vote at all than rely on mail-in ballots. Not long after this poll was published, Trump assured voters in Florida that mail-in voting was safe there.

“We’ll be able to deliver. There won’t be a problem with vote-by-mail,” said Ronnie Stutts, president of the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association. “I think even President Trump is starting to see that. I think he’s lightened up a little bit.”

The most anxiety-inducing part of all this is that there seems to be little for the average American to do. The Postal Service is an independent agency, and there’s only so much Congress can do to shape its policies. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), chair of the House government oversight committee, and House leaders are calling on DeJoy and Robert Duncan, chair of the Postal Service Board of Governors to testify on August 24. Democrats in the Senate are also pressing DeJoy to reverse his new policies, which they say would disenfranchise millions of American voters.

A FedEx box and a USPS box on a sidewalk beside a postal delivery truck.
The Postal Service is asking Congress for $25 billion in cash, which is far less than the $500 billion it gave to big corporations in the CARES Act.
Greg Whitesell/Getty Images

But again, the Postal Service’s problems extend well beyond Trump’s war on vote-by-mail. The election will come and go, and there’s a decent chance the USPS will still be in trouble. Depending on how negotiations go around the new coronavirus stimulus package, these recent delays could continue. Growing backlogs mean the mail delays could actually get worse in the weeks and months to come. Ongoing delays could chase big package senders like Amazon and eBay away from the USPS, and without that revenue, the Postal Service would be in even more serious trouble. After all, these customers have long been concerned about whether it might be better for their business to go through UPS or FedEx.

What the Postal Service needs right now — both to deliver mail and to keep existing — is money. What it needs in the long term, some say, is a bit of restructuring.

“If you think of the analogy of a house, it needs to be remodeled,” said 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. “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.”

The vast majority of Americans do not want to let the house burn down, by the way. Americans don’t just rely on the Postal Service. They love it.

For years, the USPS has been the most popular government agency in the United States. According to a Pew Research Center study released in April, 91 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the Postal Service, and roughly the same percentage of Americans want to bail out the agency. Similarly, countless companies that do business with the Postal Service are fans. Online retailers, including Amazon, even spent millions of dollars on an ad campaign begging lawmakers to save the Postal Service.

These facts leave us with a very curious situation. The Postal Service is seriously struggling, but it’s never been more important. It’s critical to get prescriptions to the homes of people during a pandemic and to deliver ballots to state election boards. It’s even prized by huge corporations like Amazon, who could easily give their money to a competing private company but would rather work with the Postal Service. At the same time, President Trump seems to disdain the agency, and the new postmaster general seems to be doing more harm than good.

The upshot of it all is that the USPS has survived difficult moments in the past. The agency can trace its roots back to the days of the American Revolution. Two and a half centuries later, mail service has never been more essential. If anything, a crisis like this could serve to remind the country how much it needs the Postal Service, despite what a handful of powerful people might believe.

Additional reporting by Jason Del Rey.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the first name of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

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