Over the last few months, Lori Cash has watched US Postal Service management remove mail sorting machines, curb after-hours pickups and deliveries, and limit overtime work in the Upstate New York region where she has worked for more than 20 years. These kinds of operational changes in the USPS, which rolled out across the country, have caused significant mail delays — and legitimate concern that they could interfere with an expected surge in mail-in voting for this November’s general election.
Many have speculated that the postal service slowdowns were intended to interfere with the election because some of these controversial cost-cutting measures were initiated after Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a top Trump donor, took over in June. And President Trump stoked these concerns when he admitted in August that he was blocking new funding for the postal service in part to sabotage universal mail-in voting.
So how worried should we be — if you vote by mail this election, will your vote get counted?
Cash told Recode that despite the hurdles and delays these changes have caused, she has little doubt that she and her colleagues around the country are ready for the expected mail-in voting rush ahead of the historic presidential election.
“Where we stand right now, I feel confident that we can handle the amount of ballots,” Cash, a postal worker and local union leader with the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), told Recode in early September. “We can definitely handle the volume even with the machines that have been removed.”
Yet Cash’s confidence comes with one big caveat: She fears that DeJoy, who paused the controversial initiatives last month in the wake of congressional pressure and a media firestorm, may still institute more disruptive changes between now and November 3. If that happens, she believes all bets are off.
About a half-dozen other rank-and-file postal employees in New York, Florida, Montana, and New England echoed Cash’s perspective in conversations that took place after DeJoy committed to pause the disruptive measures in August: They are adamant that they and their colleagues are prepared to handle the barrage of ballots — so long as DeJoy stays out of the way.
“My biggest concerns are people not mailing ballots in early enough. If there are delays in some areas, and if DeJoy makes any more significant changes out in the field, that would definitely disrupt the [mail-in voting] operation,” Cash said. “My advice to people is to make sure you know what your due date is and get that ballot in the mail two weeks early. I want people to still be proactive and mail their ballots in early — because just because [DeJoy] is quiet right now, doesn’t mean that at the last minute he won’t make any drastic changes.”
But the biggest challenge mail-in voting faces is one of trust, perhaps more than anything else. Even if DeJoy keeps his word on pausing the cost-saving changes until after the election and the USPS handles tens of millions of ballots without a major disruption, will the general public trust the results? Sowing that doubt appears to be a goal for Trump, who has for months been pushing baseless, misleading claims about how susceptible mail-in ballots are to fraud. And it seems to have worked: Conspiracy theories about the process abound. As a result, for government officials in states where voters will rely heavily on voting by mail, educating the public about how and when to vote by mail is more crucial than ever.
With the Covid-19 pandemic making in-person voting a potentially risky activity, as many as 80 million people could end up voting via mail-in or drop-off ballots ahead of the election, according to a New York Times analysis. Such a surge in mail-in voting would mark more than a 100 percent increase from mail ballot totals in 2016. That kind of spike would apply massive pressure to the USPS and its 500,000 employees even in normal times.
And these times are anything but normal at the United States Postal Service. DeJoy, a top Republican donor and former logistics company CEO, took over as the USPS chief in June and has since overseen a series of cost-cutting measures that worried postal employees, union leaders and some politicians, who feared that the accompanying deterioration in mail and package delivery times would cause a mail-in voting fiasco. The delays have also disrupted the lives of Americans who rely on timely postal service deliveries for prescription drugs, social security checks, and other important goods.
Still, America’s postal workers are committed to getting the job done.
“I think and hope [DeJoy] is hiding and going to let us do our thing and get all election mail delivered like before,” a veteran postmaster in New England, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, told Recode. “We get daily emails [from management] to make sure all election mail, incoming or outgoing, is clear everyday.”
Joanne Borell, a 25-year veteran of the USPS who is a postal clerk in Billings, Montana, says she has no reason to believe the postal service won’t handle mail-in voting on time, even with increased demand. More than half of all voters in Montana voted by mail in 2016, and Borell said she has never witnessed or heard of significant issues with handling ballots.
“We deal with passports, live animals, and other things people really care about,” Borell said in an interview. “We are always watching for things that we have to take special care of.”
What does concern Borell is how some mail delays and misleading claims about vote-by-mail fraud has caused many Americans to lose confidence in the postal service. Recently, a family member of Borell told her they were worried postal employees with a political bias would discard or tamper with ballots to try to give their chosen candidate and party a boost. Such conspiracies are not surprising at a time in which Trump has routinely publicly attacked mail-in voting.
But Borell was offended by the suggestion.
“Never in my entire career have I seen anybody do something like that,” she said of tossing ballots in the trash.
Another postal clerk, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to reporters, said a deluge of Amazon packages is what is currently overwhelming the post offices where the employee works. But the USPS has actually seen a decline of customers sending first-class mail like bills and letters during the pandemic, which presumably would allow the postal service to more easily process a surge of mail-in ballots, which are also typically treated as first-class.
“From what I can see, we are perfectly capable of handling [a surge of mail-in ballots],” the worker said. “But we’re getting destroyed with packages. It’s like Christmas never ended.”
Nate Castro, a mail processor in Tampa, Florida, and a local APWU leader, said election ballots, which get labeled with a red tag to denote their importance, will get processed quickly and accurately — barring unforeseen changes by DeJoy or other top management to existing USPS processes.
“You want to vote in-person? So be it; that’s your voting right,” Castro told Recode. “But it should also be the right for every person to vote by mail.”
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