The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

State officials rush to shore up confidence in Nov. 3 election as voters express new fears about mail voting

Protesters demonstrating mail delays march to the home of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in Washington on Saturday. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg News)

President Trump’s unprecedented attacks on the U.S. Postal Service amid widespread mail delays across the country are shaking voters’ faith that their ballots will be counted, prompting a rush among federal, state and local officials to protect the integrity of the Nov. 3 election.

Thousands of voters have called government offices in recent days to ask whether it is still safe to mail their ballots, according to officials across the country. Attorneys general from at least six states are huddling to discuss possible lawsuits against the administration to block it from reducing mail service between now and the election, several told The Washington Post. State leaders are scrambling to see whether they can change rules to give voters more options, and Democrats are planning a massive public education campaign to shore up trust in the vote and the Postal Service.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Sunday announced that she was calling the House back early from its summer recess to vote on legislation later this week that would block changes to Postal Service operations. House Democrats on Sunday also announced plans for an emergency hearing on mail delays later this month.

“He is undermining the safest voting method during a pandemic and forcing people to cast a ballot in person,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D) said of Trump . “It is reprehensible.”

The race to action comes amid escalating worries that even if the president does not succeed in blocking mail voting, he has created a dangerous crisis of confidence that could jeopardize whether Americans view the eventual outcome as legitimate.

“He has succeeded enough that everybody is working overtime to clean up the mess,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan voting rights group.

As officials from the Trump administration and campaign defended the president on Aug. 16, Democrats claimed Postal Service cuts could hurt the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post)

For months, elections officials in both major political parties have been encouraging voters to cast their ballots by mail to avoid coronavirus infection. The effort has worked, with record numbers voting by mail in a slew of primaries this spring and summer — and planning to do so again in November, according to numerous public polls. More than 180 million Americans are now eligible to vote by mail in the fall after many states relaxed their rules.

But the president, lagging in the polls behind presumed Democratic nominee Joe Biden, has been lobbing nonstop attacks on voting by mail, making unfounded claims that it opens the door to rampant fraud. In fact, states that have embraced universal mail voting have documented tiny rates of ballot fraud, data shows.

Last week, Trump went further, saying he opposes billions of dollars in urgently needed election funding for the states and the Postal Service because he doesn’t want states to make it easier for Americans to vote by mail.

Trump opposes election aid for states and Postal Service bailout, threatening Nov. 3 vote

Voting advocates and Democrats accused the president of intentionally sowing chaos and confusion just as election offices are starting to accept requests for mail ballots — a blatant attempt at voter suppression, they said.

“I am alarmed. I am disheartened,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who is pushing for a $3.6 billion cash infusion to help states prepare for the fall elections in the latest coronavirus relief package. “But no one in America has given up, because people are on to him. They know what he’s doing. Americans, as you can see from their votes in their primaries, would rather put ballots in the mailbox than their families in the hospital.”

Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said Sunday that the president is open to more post office funding if Democrats support more help for “normal Americans,” such as the stimulus checks and small-business relief that Trump has demanded.

But, Murtaugh added, “Democrats know that changing voting rules this close to an election will cause chaos, and now they’re looking for someone else to blame.”

In an appearance Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows appeared to back off Trump’s earlier comments, saying the president is open to legislation that would ensure adequate postal funding to manage the surge of mail ballots this fall. Meadows also said no postal sorting machines will be taken off line between now and Nov. 3, insisting that previous removals were part of a plan that predated the Trump administration.

“The president of the United States is not going to interfere with anybody casting their vote in a legitimate way, whether it’s the post office or anything else,” Meadows said.

But in the same interview, Meadows emphasized the president’s concern about ballot fraud, even though he was unable to point to evidence of widespread fraud. “There’s no evidence that there’s not,” he said.

Lori Cash, a 22-year USPS veteran, talks about the Trump administration's influence on the Postal Service and how it is causing concerns for mail-in ballots. (Video: The Washington Post)

Postal workers have expressed alarm in recent weeks about widespread mail delays across the country, the result of operational ­changes put in place at the Postal Service by Louis DeJoy, the postmaster general and a top GOP donor, saying the backlogs could hamper ballot delivery.

The revelation Friday that the Postal Service has warned 46 states that it cannot guarantee the delivery of all ballots in time to be counted under their current deadlines set off a cascade of panic in the public. Social media lit up with frantic questions from people about how to cast ballots safely. On Twitter, #USPSProtests was a top trending hashtag throughout the weekend.

Many voters said they were so alarmed that they are reconsidering their plans to cast mail ballots and plan to risk going to the polls in person amid the pandemic to make sure they are counted.

“I was planning on doing it though the post office,” said Kamilla Gilfedder, 36, a voter in Lexington, Ky., who plans to vote for Biden. “It was primarily just to avoid covid. I’ve got a toddler, and my family is high-risk. But when I think about it, I just want to make sure that my vote is registered. So I think I’m going to go in.”

Kathy Blair, 73, a retiree who lives in St. Paul, Minn., said she is still waiting for her granddaughter in California to receive a birthday present she mailed July 14 using priority service. Blair said she plans to vote early in person this fall and has persuaded several of her friends who had planned to vote by mail to do the same. Otherwise, she said, “five weeks, six weeks later the ballots may never show up,” calling the postal delays “a travesty.”

In Virginia, hundreds of voters called the state elections office Friday trying to cancel their mail-ballot requests, according to Chris Piper, the top elections official in the state. Piper said there is no formal way to do so, but voters who want to vote in person should bring their mail ballot with them to the polls, allowing officials to void it.

Attorneys general from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Washington and North Carolina, among others, have begun discussions on how to sue the administration to prevent operational changes or funding lapses that could affect the election. They expect to announce legal action early this week, according to several involved in the talks.

“This is not just terrible policy, but it may be illegal under federal law and other state laws as well,” said Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D). “A lot of work is being done literally as we speak over the weekend and at nights to try to figure out what Trump and DeJoy are doing, whether they have already violated or are likely to violate any laws and how we can take swift action to try to stop this assault on our democracy.”

Eric Holder, who served as U.S. attorney general under President Barack Obama and now leads the anti-gerrymandering group National Democratic Redistricting Committee, is also considering legal action, a spokesman said.

Democrats, who have seized on the mail delays as a potent campaign issue, moved rapidly to keep the pressure on the administration and GOP lawmakers.

House and Senate Democrats said they are launching investigations into service changes at the Postal Service. And the House Oversight Committee on Sunday scheduled an emergency hearing on mail delays and concerns about potential White House interference in the Postal Service, inviting DeJoy and Postal Service Board of Governors Chairman Robert M. Duncan to testify Aug. 24.

The Postal Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, plans to devote a “substantial” portion of $280 million in reserved ad time this fall to education mes­sages designed to walk voters through their options on how to vote safely and securely, spokesman TJ Ducklo said.

Democrats and voting advocates appeared united that the most urgent task is to reassure voters that casting their ballots by mail is safe and secure, especially if they give them plenty of time to arrive.

“Donald Trump is scared,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo of Fair Fight Action, the voting rights organization founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor in Georgia in 2018. “He’s a coward. He doesn’t think he can win an election when everybody is allowed to vote. Our vote is our power.”

State elections officials also noted that they have been talking to local postal managers for weeks and said they have been told ballots will be given priority treatment.

“We are exploring all available options, but we also want to make clear that people should continue to make use of mail options and not be deterred by the president’s effort to undermine the election,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D).

Officials plan to drive home the need for voters to cast their ballots early, both through the mail and at early-voting sites. In most states, absentee ballots will start arriving toward the end of September. That raises the prospect that millions of Americans will rush to cast their votes weeks before the Nov. 3 election.

Trump’s assault on the U.S. Postal Service gives Democrats a new campaign message

In the states, elections officials are also consumed with the question of whether they have time to make fresh changes to election policies to give voters more options — and more time — to return their ballots.

In Colorado, which offers universal mail voting, Griswold is urging local elections administrators to apply for additional drop boxes to place across their counties. Griswold’s office is paying for 100 such boxes, which cost between $4,000 and $10,000. Griswold said she is also considering whether to send ballots out to voters earlier than scheduled to give voters even more time to return them.

While many states are accelerating their use of drop boxes as an alternative to mailing ballots, Republicans have raised questions about their security, even suing to block them in Pennsylvania. Democrats have pointed to that opposition as evidence that Republicans are more interested in hindering voting than helping run an unprecedented election during a pandemic.

“The majority of Coloradans already use drop boxes,” said Griswold, noting that the boxes are bolted to the ground, lighted at night and under 24-hour surveillance. They are also emptied by a team that must include one Republican and one Democratic election judge, she said.

Scott McDonell, the clerk of Dane County, Wis., which includes Madison, said one local elections official in the county briefly considered using library book drops for ballots before realizing they are not secure enough.

“You need something that can’t be broken into,” McDonell said.

Meanwhile, officials are making plans for additional voter education campaigns to remind the public that early in-person voting is also a safe option for those seeking to avoid the likely denser crowds of Election Day. Officials also plan to instruct voters not to use the mail to return their ballot too close to the election — but said they haven’t figured out when that cutoff should be.

“At some point we’re going to message voters, ‘If you haven’t sent your absentee ballot back, then you need to go ahead and take it in,” said Piper, the Virginia elections official. Piper said the state legislature is also expected to consider more funding for drop boxes this week, when a special session convenes.

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

The mail backlogs prompted a massive outcry from postal customers who rely on the mail for the delivery of medicines, unemployment checks and Social Security payments. Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) received more than 5,000 letters on the subject in the past week, according to his office. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) has received nearly 7,000. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) reported 3,000 such complaints.

Peters’s office said that more than 750 of the messages to his office related to election issues, including complaints of never receiving mail ballots in the Michigan primary two weeks ago and testimonials of dropping off ballots rather than risking a mail delay.

The public outcry has led even Republican lawmakers to press the Postal Service to alter its approach.

Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) announced Friday that he supports a reversal of DeJoy’s policy changes. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) wrote a letter to DeJoy urging the same, citing the heavy reliance of small businesses, veterans and seniors on the mail in his rural state.

“The reason the president doesn’t want people to vote by mail is that polls show that people who want to vote by mail tend to vote for Vice President Biden,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a regular critic of Trump, said in a video interview with the conservative Sutherland Institute. “People who tend to want to vote in-person tend to want to vote for President Trump. So this is a political calculation.”

President Trump has said the U.S. Postal Service cannot facilitate mail-in voting in 2020 because it lacks emergency funding that he is blocking. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Trump’s threats to oppose Postal Service funding came the same week that he and first lady Melania Trump put in their own requests for absentee ballots in Florida.

Recent polls have produced varying estimates for the share of Americans who expect to vote by mail. A new Pew Research Center poll released last week found that 39 percent of all registered voters prefer to vote by mail in November; while a separate Monmouth University poll found 49 percent saying they are at least somewhat likely to vote by mail.

In 2016, by comparison, about 24 percent of voters cast absentee ballots, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Pew’s survey also found that nearly half of registered voters said they expect voting in November to be difficult — more than triple the share who said this ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. Democrats, younger voters and Black voters were much less likely than others to expect voting will be easy.

Democrats, meanwhile, said that bipartisan support for the mail gives them leverage to approve a $25 billion bailout for the Postal Service. They also say the issue has given them a potent political weapon in House and Senate battlegrounds, with numerous Democratic candidates already on the air with ads criticizing their opponents for failing to shore up mail service.

“No matter what [Trump] does, Americans are going to find a way to vote,” Klobuchar said. “But we have to do everything we can to make it safe.”

Jacob Bogage, Scott Clement and Joseph Marks contributed to this report.