Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is implementing cost-cutting measures including reductions in overtime and late trips that are causing service disruptions and delays in mail delivery in parts of the US.
In order to ensure your vote is counted, be sure to request your November ballot now and return it over a week in advance, or consider returning your ballot in-person to your election office or a dropbox.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump caused alarm by saying he would reject a $25 billion emergency funding grant to help the USPS stay afloat to intentionally sabotage mail-in voting. He later walked back his comments and said he would agree to sign a bill that included urgent funds for the service.
In addition to election mail and ballots, the US Postal Service also delivers essential documents, medication, and is a key service for small businesses to operate and send out packages.
As the carrier delivering packages to the last mile where it isn’t profitable for other private companies to deliver, the post office is especially key in rural areas. The Postal Service is also one of the most popular government agencies, with an April Pew Research Center survey finding that 91% of Americans have a favorable view of it.
How does the USPS work and how is it funded?
The US Constitution vested in the federal government the power to create “to establish Post Offices and Post Roads,” with Benjamin Franklin appointed as the first-ever postmaster general in 1775. Its mission is to provide affordable mail and package delivery services to everywhere in the United States, no matter how remote or far-flung.
While the Postal Service is a government agency, it doesn’t run off of taxpayer money, and operates entirely off of revenues from mail and package delivery as well as the other services it offers. It employs over half a million people, including 100,000 US military veterans.
The Postal Service now projects that it will run out of money by April 2021 if package volume returns to pre-pandemic levels and by October 2021 if package volume stays at 15% above pre-pandemic levels, Federal News Network reported.
How has the pandemic affected USPS?
The sharp reduction in mail delivery caused by the pandemic initially threatened to plunge the agency into even more dire straits, with the Postal Service reporting $2.2 billion in net losses in 2020’s third quarter.
Trump, who has been hostile to the idea of expanding vote by mail, is opposed to any measures to help the Post Office. He has refused to sign the CARES Act stimulus package if it included a bailout for the agency, The Washington Post reported in April.
While the stimulus bill extended the Postal Service greater flexibility to borrow up to $10 billion from the federal government subject to Treasury Department approval, it didn’t extend the agency any emergency government funding or forgive $11 billion in outstanding debt to Treasury, two of the measures that congressional Democrats called for.
The Post reported that while Congress initially came to an agreement on giving the Postal Service a $13 billion grant, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin quashed the grant, telling lawmakers, “You can have a loan, or you can have nothing at all.”
What are the recent policy changes impacting mail delivery and the election?
In June, former Postmaster General Megan Brennan retired and the Postal Service Board of Governors appointed Louis DeJoy, a North Carolina-based shipping and logistics executive and Republican political donor, as the next postmaster general. He had no experience working at the post office.
In remarks to the Postal Service Board of Governors, DeJoy has emphasized that he’s committed to keep providing timely mail delivery, including of election mail, while warning that “without timely legislative and regulatory reform, we will be forced to take aggressive measures to cut costs and bridge the divide.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on DeJoy to “quickly reverse his operational changes that have led to delays and service reductions for too many Americans and threaten to undermine our democracy” in a Friday statement.
On Friday, CNN reported that the Postal Service’s inspector general has opened investigations both into the new changes and DeJoy’s possible financial conflicts.
The USPS is limiting overtime hours for mail carriers, according to guidance reported on by the Associated Press and the Washington Post. The limit will reduce how much mail carriers can deliver on a given day and will result in undelivered mail being left at distribution centers.
USPS is also reducing “late trips” after-hours to deliver the maximum amount of mail each day and leave behind as little possible, the Post and Government Executive reported, which could further delay timely delivery.
The Post Office is removing around 15% of its total high-speed processing letter machines from many locations, Motherboard reported.
The agency has said the reduction in sorting machines, a now long-term process which began years before DeJoy took over, is in response to the overall yearslong decline in mail volume. But postal workers told Vice that even though mail volume has fallen, the removal of such sorting machines could hinder their ability to quickly process ballots.
DeJoy recently significantly reshuffled the agency’s top leadership, removing or reassigning 23 top executives, implemented a hiring freeze, and asking employees to retire early if possible, the Post reported.
Officials at the top of the post office have assured officials and the public that the agency is prepared to handle a significant uptick in mail ballots, noting that it will still make up an overall small portion of their mail volume.
“On any given day, the Postal Service delivers more than 425 million pieces of mail, and our best estimates are that election mail will account for less than 2% of all mail volume from mid-September until Election Day,” USPS executives David Williams and Thomas Marshall wrote in USA Today. “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.”
Still, with the entire US election infrastructure and the Postal Service under stress, it’s important to do your part by requesting your ballot as soon as possible.
All 50 states allow voters to return mail ballots in-person to their local county elections office. In some states, you can also return to your ballot to a secure, monitored ballot dropbox, an option that lets you both avoid possible post office delays and long lines at the polls.
In all but a few states that hold all-mail elections, you’ll also have the option to vote in-person on election day. If you do, double-check your polling place, (it may have been moved due to the pandemic), wear a mask, and be prepared to wait in a longer line than usual.