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Postal Service backlog sparks worries that ballot delivery could be delayed in November

A letter carrier prepares mail for delivery at a U.S. Postal Service facility in Fairfax County, Va. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

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The U.S. Postal Service is experiencing days-long backlogs of mail across the country after a top Trump donor running the agency put in place new procedures described as cost-cutting efforts, alarming postal workers who warn that the policies could undermine their ability to deliver ballots on time for the November election.

As President Trump ramps up his unfounded attacks on mail balloting as being susceptible to widespread fraud, postal employees and union officials say the changes implemented by Trump fundraiser-turned-postmaster general Louis DeJoy are contributing to a growing perception that mail delays are the result of a political effort to undermine absentee voting.

The backlog comes as the president, who is trailing presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the polls, has escalated his efforts to cast doubt about the integrity of the November vote, which is expected to yield record numbers of mail ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday, Trump floated the idea of delaying the Nov. 3 general election, a notion that was widely condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike. He has repeatedly gone after the Postal Service, recently suggesting that the agency cannot be trusted to deliver ballots.

The Fix’s Amber Phillips breaks down how President Trump’s rhetoric about voting has gotten more extreme as he has sunk in the polls. (Video: The Washington Post)

DeJoy, a North Carolina logistics executive who donated more than $2 million to GOP political committees in the past four years, approved changes that took effect July 13 that the agency said were aimed at cutting costs for the debt-laden mail service. They included prohibiting overtime pay, shutting down sorting machines early and requiring letter carriers to leave mail behind when necessary to avoid extra trips or late delivery on routes.

Postal Service memos detail ‘difficult’ changes, including slower mail delivery

The new policies have resulted in at least a two-day delay in scattered parts of the country, even for express mail, according to multiple postal workers and union leaders. Letter carriers are manually sorting more mail, adding to the delivery time. Bins of mail ready for delivery are sitting in post offices because of scheduling and route changes. And without the ability to work overtime, workers say the logjam is worsening without an end in sight.

As states look to dramatically expand the use of mail-in ballots this fall, postal workers across the country said the changes could lead to chaos in November.

“I’m actually terrified to see election season under the new procedure,” said Lori Cash, president of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) Local 183 in Western New York.

David Partenheimer, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, said the recent changes aim to stabilize the agency after decades of financial woes. The procedures are not meant to slow the delivery of ballots or any other mail, he said, adding that any problems will be short-lived, he said.

“Of course we acknowledge that temporary service impacts can occur . . . but any such impacts will be monitored and temporary,” Partenheimer said.

Partenheimer said that claims that DeJoy takes directions from Trump are “wholly misplaced and off-base,” noting that the postmaster general is appointed by a bipartisan board of governors.

In a meeting with DeJoy on Thursday, the head of one of the nation’s largest postal workers unions said he shared the “deep concerns” of postal workers that the new procedures are causing mounting backlogs that could affect the election.

“I vehemently weighed in that this is wrong,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the APWU, which represents more than 200,000 postal employees and retirees. “It’s wrong for the people of the country, it’s wrong for the public Postal Service. It drives away business and revenue. And it’s wrong for the workers.”

Dimondstein said DeJoy told him that he is committed to mail voting and providing full assistance to states as they run their elections.

“I plan, and the people of the country plan, to hold him to his word,” the union leader said.

Voters and postal workers have reported scattered problems across the country in recent days, including in key battleground states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, raising concerns among residents whether their states are being targeted because of their importance in the presidential and Senate elections.

In Michigan, which is gearing up for its Aug. 4 primary, election administrators said they have fielded complaints from voters who had not yet received their ballots as of this week. Election clerks are advising voters to drop off their ballot Tuesday rather than sending it back via mail, out of fear that the ballots will not be returned in time to be counted.

“I don’t think it’s a widespread issue, but anytime we get mail delayed, especially first class, or not delivered at all, it becomes a concern,” said Phil Kerns, the city clerk of Frankenmuth, in the central part of Michigan.

The upheaval inside the Postal Service has sparked condemnation from top Democrats. Speaking on Thursday at a service memorializing the late representative John Lewis, former president Barack Obama decried “those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting . . . even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that’s going to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don’t get sick.”

And four Senate Democrats wrote to DeJoy on Thursday, demanding information about the new procedures, calling them “questionable.”

“Your failure to provide Congress with relevant information about these recent changes or to clarify to postal employees what changes you have directed as Postmaster General, undermines public trust and only increases concerns that service compromises will grow in advance of the election and peak mail volumes in November,” wrote Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.).

The delays are especially alarming given the impending flood of campaign and election mail and a potential resurgence of coronavirus cases in the fall that could lead to staff shortages, Postal Service employees said. Their frustrations have led some to dub the new postmaster “Louie DeLay” in private, several workers said.

“I’m a little frightened. By the time political season rolls around, I shudder to think what it’s going to look like,” said a postal employee in Pennsylvania, who, like many others, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.

In a meeting Wednesday with Ronnie Stutts, president of the National Rural Letter Carriers Association, DeJoy said his relationship with the president does not affect his decisions at the agency, Stutts said.

“I asked him, ‘Do you know that your president who you support . . . is not real high on voting by mail? He don’t like that.’ And he said, ‘Let me tell you something. . . . My relationship with the president is not going to have anything to do with me doing my job,’ ” said Stutts, who said he believes the changes will make the agency more efficient.

A shift at the Postal Service

Trump has repeatedly gone after the Postal Service, calling it “a joke” and demanding it raise the rates it charges companies such as Amazon. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) In recent months, the administration has sought to leverage the agency’s financial woes, made worse by the pandemic and declines in profitable first- and second-class mail. On Wednesday, the Postal Service agreed to give the Treasury Department information about its private-sector contracts in exchange for a $10 billion emergency loan authorized by Congress in an early round of coronavirus relief spending.

Weeks after DeJoy took over, agency officials released an internal memo announcing a “pivot” for all employees.

Traditionally, postal workers are trained not to leave letters behind and to make multiple delivery trips to ensure mail is delivered on time — which can incur extra costs in overtime hours, transportation and more.

Officials laid out a shift away from this approach, saying that such practices cost the organization about $200 million in added expenses, according to the memo, which was obtained by The Post.

Among the changes is a new, strict cutoff time in the morning for mail carriers to pick up items to deliver that day, several postal employees from three different states said.

The machines that typically sort mail and prepare them for pickup by carriers are being shut down earlier in some areas to cut costs, requiring carriers to sort more mail by hand once they arrive in the morning.

That means any mail that is not ready by cutoff time waits at least another day. And if there is any error in hand-sorted mail, it needs to be rerouted to another carrier — which could lead to three to four extra days of waiting. As a result of these changes, guaranteed shipping dates are not being met, the employees said.

“This is forced. These are things that don’t have to happen,” one worker from Pennsylvania said.

Cash, who works in Lancaster, N.Y., said her post office is about two days behind its normal processing time.

“The cardinal rule is, ‘don’t delay the mail,’ and we’re in a 180-degree switch where we’re delaying mail every day,” she said, adding that if the system is not fixed before election season, “it’s going to be a catastrophe at the post office.”

Partenheimer said the agency is not slowing down mail, but that it is “reemphasizing” plans that are meant to make the Postal Service more prompt and reliable.

Stutts said he is confident the changes under DeJoy will make the agency more efficient and financially stable, and that concerns about delays are exaggerated and premature.

​​“What he is putting in place, I want to give the man an opportunity to do what he’s wanting to do,” Stutts said. “You’re really not delaying anything. What you’re doing is, you’re running an efficient operation.”

Stutts said that agency officials have said they plan to keep the new procedures in place as a trial for about 30 to 60 days. The Postal Service did not respond to a request about its timeline.

Worries for November

The mail delay comes as election officials across the country are struggling to process a crush of absentee ballots driven by the pandemic.

A delay in delivering ballots to voters and then returning them back to election officials could cause people to be disenfranchised — especially in states that require ballots to be returned by Election Day, voting rights experts warn.

Already, tens of thousands of ballots across the country have been disqualified in this year’s primaries, many because they did not arrive in time.

In Wisconsin, 2,659 ballots that were returned after the April 13 deadline for the spring primary were not counted due to their late arrival, according to the state election commission. In California, 70,330 ballots were disqualified because they missed the deadline, according to an AP analysis.

Tens of thousands of mail ballots have been tossed out in this year’s primaries. What will happen in November?

Ballots are typically sorted by hand and prioritized by postal workers so they can be sure they are delivered on time, USPS employees said.

The current backlogs are becoming so dire that if the new procedures remain in place, workers may not be able to locate all the ballots in time for them to be processed, they said.

“If they keep this up until the election, there’s no telling how many days-worth of delays there could be. I mean, we’ll be delivering political mail days after the election,” a postal worker from California said.

Some election officials said they have already heard from voters anxious about delayed ballots for the primaries.

Kerns, the city clerk in Frankenmuth, Mich., which has a population of 5,400, said he heard from several voters earlier this week that they were still waiting for their ballots for Tuesday’s primary — which had been mailed on July 10 and 13.

Election officials across the country are warning voters to send their general-election ballots as early as possible to avoid potential delays. The Postal Service recommends voters request their ballots at least 15 days before Election Day and mail their completed ballots at least one week before the due date.

“Don’t wait for covid numbers to start rising and go like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not going to the polls, I’m going to vote from home,’ ” Kerns said. “Just anticipate now that we’ll probably see an upsurge as people come closer together, the weather gets colder, so you might as well just plan now to vote by mail.”

Partenheimer, the Postal Service spokesman, said delivery standards for election mail have not changed. He urged election officials and voters to be aware of the time it takes to prepare and deliver ballots.

Several voters who said they have recently experienced mail delays said they are growing increasingly anxious about whether their ballots will be delivered in time this fall.

“I’m concerned that when it comes time for the election in the fall, that Trump and Republicans . . . would be willing to manipulate the mail even, so that votes don’t get in,” said Nancy Di Giacinto, a 67-year-old retiree in Brookfield, Wis., west of Milwaukee.

Di Giacinto has asthma, and said she will vote by mail out of fear of the virus.

“I’m worried,” she said. “I don’t know if my vote was counted last time, and especially in the fall, I need to make sure my vote is counted.”