A worker processes vote-by-mail ballots from a primary election on Aug. 5 at the King County Elections headquarters in Renton, Wash., south of Seattle.

A worker processes vote-by-mail ballots from a primary election on Aug. 5 at the King County Elections headquarters in Renton, Wash., south of Seattle. Ted S. Warren / AP

What's Really Going On At the Postal Service

USPS does not need emergency funding for the election specifically, but acknowledges recent reforms have reduced service levels.

President Trump on Thursday suggested he was holding up a deal on coronavirus relief in part to ensure the U.S. Postal Service would not have sufficient funds to handle mass mail-in ballots this fall, falsely conflating various pressures the agency is facing. 

While congressional Democrats are seeking to provide $25 billion to USPS to help the cash-strapped agency, postal management has never indicated it requires that funding to deliver absentee and other mailed ballots for the forthcoming election. To the contrary, USPS has repeatedly made clear it can easily absorb any uptick in mailed ballots and has long been preparing for such an event. 

“Now they need that money in order to make the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump incorrectly said in a Fox Business interview. Without receiving the funds, he added, “that means you can't have universal mail-in voting because they're not equipped to have it."

The Postal Service, prior to the swearing in of current Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, asked Congress for $75 billion in financial assistance to offset losses from the novel coronavirus pandemic and fund “shovel ready” modernization projects. No part of the request, however, was tied directly to delivering ballots to voters or back to election boards. Postal management said in a financial statement last week it has sufficient funds to operate normally through at least August 2021. Paul Steidler, a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute, noted that even if 60% of the electorate votes by mail it would only lead to about a 1% increase in the Postal Service’s normal delivery volume. The Postal Service itself estimated mailed-in ballots would account for 2% of the agency’s volume between September and the Nov. 3 election. 

“Given our available processing capacity, we can easily handle the anticipated increase in election mail due to the COVID-19 pandemic, without impact to on-time performance,” wrote USPS executive vice presidents David Williams, also the agency's chief logistics and processing operations officer, and Thomas Marshall, also the USPS general counsel, in a USA Today op-ed on Wednesday. 

While Democrats have pushed for an additional $3.6 billion to help state and local governments ensure election security and safety in pandemic conditions, there is no effort in the stimulus negotiations to create universal vote by mail at the federal level as Trump suggested. Those decisions are made at the state level and municipal level. 

Some states have voiced concern that the Postal Service’s assurances it can deliver ballots on time are insufficient, especially in light of changes DeJoy has implemented that could lead to delays in the mail. USPS has instructed employees not to take overtime, has implemented a hiring freeze for the small portion of its workforce that is not represented by a union and is altering the schedules for letter carriers in a way that will likely force them to leave some mail behind each day. 

While employees have confirmed they were told not to take overtime and internal memoranda spell out the policy, Roy Betts, an agency spokesman, denied there was any “edict” to eliminate it. 

“Rather, we are ensuring that our operations run on time and on schedule, which will avoid unnecessary overtime and transportation costs,” Betts said. “We are making these changes methodically and in ways designed to ensure the timely and cost-effective delivery of America’s mail, including election mail.”

Mail delays have long plagued the Postal Service and have increased during the pandemic, prior to DeJoy’s reform efforts taking effect. In the third quarter of fiscal 2019, USPS delivered 7% of first-class mail late, in addition to 9% of marketing mail and 12% of periodicals. In the third quarter of the current fiscal year, which ended before DeJoy took office, that increased to 9% of first-class mail, 11% of marketing mail and 23% of periodicals. 

The Postal Service has implored states to create schedules for mailed ballots that comport to its delivery timeframes. States typically send out blank ballots using the nonprofit marketing mail designation, which is significantly cheaper than first-class mail—a standard letter with a $0.55 stamp is first-class mail—but typically takes longer to deliver. In May—also before DeJoy took office—Marshall, the USPS general counsel, advised states to send their ballots via first-class mail to ensure they are delivered and returned on time. 

Dave Partenheimer, a USPS spokesman, said the agency has made that advisory to states “for years” and it did not reflect any change in policy. While states have typically used marketing mail to deliver ballots to voters, they are labeled with tags and logos that have enabled postal workers to expedite them as if they were first class. Partenheimer, however, emphasized such logos and tags “do not upgrade” election mail to the quicker category. 

Several Senate Democrats, led by Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, wrote to DeJoy this week urging him not to take any action “that makes it harder and more expensive for Americans to vote.” The senators suggested DeJoy was implementing a policy change, as USPS was walking back its commitment to treat all election mail as first class. They noted many jurisdictions are facing budget crunches due to the pandemic and cannot absorb increased costs to ensure timely delivery. 

“If any changes are made to longstanding practices of moving election mail just months ahead of the 2020 general election, it will cause further delays to election mail that will disenfranchise voters and put significant financial pressure on election jurisdictions,” the senators wrote. They requested information on the Postal Service’s practice with regard to election mail prior to 2020 and any guidance provided to workers for the fall. 

Partenheimer, the USPS spokesman, denied any change in policy had occurred. 

In a message to employees on Thursday, DeJoy acknowledged his changes have led to some negative outcomes on mail delivery. While he said the "on-time dispatch" rate was up and extra trips to deliver mail were down, he lamented his "transformative initiative" had "unintended consequences that impacted our service levels overall." He added USPS was “working feverishly” to bridge existing gaps between mail processing plants and post offices, and that work would quickly lead to better outcomes. 

“This will increase our performance for the election and upcoming peak season and maintain the high level of public trust we have earned for dedication and commitment to our customers throughout our history,” DeJoy said. Still, he predicted some bumps in the road ahead: “While it will take some time to get the new organizational structure fully in place and achieving our expected levels of high performance, we are confident that it is the right alignment and that it was a change that needed to be made.” 

Members of both parties have resisted DeJoy’s changes and called on him to walk them back. Democrats have accused DeJoy—who has raised millions of dollars for Trump and the Republican Party—of fulfilling the wishes of the president, who has long feuded with the mailing agency. DeJoy has denied Trump holds any influence over his decision making.