Letters are usually just delivered by the United States Postal Service, not sent by them.
But at the end of July, Minnesota’s Secretary of State got a letter from the Postmaster General of the USPS. And it came with a warning: Vote-by-mail might not be fully covered by election day.
“To the extent that mail is used to transmit ballots to and from voters, there is a significant risk that, at least in certain circumstances, ballots may be requested in a manner that is consistent with your election rules and returned promptly, and yet not be returned in time to be counted,” wrote Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.
Republicans say there is nothing to worry about. But Minnesota’s elected DFLers have been concerned for months about President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on voting by mail, specifically after he threatened pandemic recovery funding for the postal service and erroneously suggested, multiple times, that voting by mail is prone to fraud. And DeJoy, a major Trump donor, has only confirmed their fears by reducing service around the country and suggesting voting by mail, during an unprecedented effort to increase vote by mail during a pandemic, might not work well this election cycle.
“I don’t know what the purpose was, but really it didn’t make much sense,” Secretary of State Steve Simon said about the letter from DeJoy. “Other than perhaps to send a message to convince people that it was somehow too risky to vote from home.”
So what do we know about the changes to Minnesota’s postal service capacity? And will voting by mail be impacted?
What’s happened so far?
Within eight weeks of taking office in June, DeJoy started implementing major changes to USPS.
Republicans in Congress have long sought to privatize USPS, arguing that the agency loses money each year. (The Pentagon, Centers for Disease Control, and Federal Emergency Management Agency also lose money.)
DeJoy, the first postmaster general without experience at USPS in almost three decades, is also the first postmaster general to follow through with major cuts. In July, he effectively eliminated overtime for postal workers. A memo sent to staff suggests that the changes were only “the first wave” and staff will have to think differently to “keep USPS alive.”
It took until August for many of the changes to be made visible around the country, captured in photos and acknowledged in officials’ emails: mailboxes were removed and trucked away and mail sorting machines were disconnected. People also began to complain about shipping delays, which in one case, resulted in thousands of baby chickens dying as they were shipped to Maine.
Democratic condemnation of DeJoy was swift.
In early August, Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith requested DeJoy explain why USPS reduced mail services at the Charles Horn Towers, a public housing complex in Minneapolis, and asked him to commit to notifying Minnesota’s Congressional delegation of any future mail stoppages.
“Not only am I concerned about how this decision is restricting access to voting for low-income households and people of color in Minneapolis, but I am also deeply concerned about nationwide mail delays and the impact of these delays on the integrity of the 2020 elections,” Smith wrote in a letter to DeJoy. “The growing inability of USPS to maintain service levels will jeopardize participation in the upcoming elections. USPS leadership should be focused on ensuring timely mail delivery; now is not the time for internal reorganization.”
While Republicans have characterized the effort to block changes to the USPS as a distraction during the 2020 election, a number of Democrats have said their fears have not been alleviated by DeJoy’s recent statements about vote-by-mail. Democrats in the Senate and in the House have peppered DeJoy with questions in hearings ranging from his recent changes to the USPS to his understanding of how much it costs to mail a postcard (he did not know).
On August 22, the House voted to appropriate $25 billion in emergency funding to the USPS and block the changes DeJoy had made. Trump has threatened to veto the measure and it’s unlikely it will be taken up in the Republican-led Senate. All Minnesotans in Congress voted along party lines, with Republicans voting against it.
Republicans, like First District Rep. Jim Hagedorn, have said the entire focus on USPS is a sideshow. Hagedorn called the concerns in the bill about USPS changes a “conspiracy theory,” criticizing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Instead of negotiating in good faith to deliver needed and sensible relief to our farmers, workers, small businesses and families, the speaker has chosen to peddle a baseless conspiracy theory that is meant to deteriorate the American people’s confidence in our system of free and fair elections,” said Hagedorn, who represents Minnesota’s First, said in a statement after the vote. “Her actions are nothing short of despicable.”
Shipping concerns in Minnesota
In Minnesota, Attorney General Keith Ellison announced a lawsuit (along with 13 other states) against USPS on August 18, saying that mail sorting capacity in the Twin Cities had been reduced from 200,000 pieces of mail per hour to 100,000 pieces of mail per hour. The attorney general’s office also said that three mail sorting machines may have been deactivated and that six more, at the time the lawsuit was announced, may be deactivated as well.
Only after the condemnation did DeJoy say that he would delay the changes until after the election. But emails sent to branch managers around the U.S in late August, obtained by VICE, show that the USPS will not be reconnecting machines they have already disconnected.
“If true, that’s why we haven’t just dropped our lawsuit based on what DeJoy said, because we need to have a specific agreement that is enforceable before we back off,” Ellison said in an interview. The Attorney General said he believes the reasoning for the changes are twofold: “The most immediate one is to advantage the president in the upcoming election. But then it’s a part of a longer term trend where they’ve been trying to privatize the post office for years,” he said.
While disadvantaging those that vote-by-mail is a concern, so are the everyday implications of the changes at USPS. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, typically an advocate expanding ballot access, is also concerned about how the changes have impacted shipping.
“One small business owner in St. Paul, who designs hats, faced an unprecedented delay in receiving a shipment of supplies and as a result nearly missed her own delivery deadline for her customers,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in a statement. “These sole proprietors cannot reach their customers without the USPS, and their business model is directly threatened by needless delivery delays.”
Klobuchar’s concerns are shared with Minnesota’s postal workers unions, who have suggested that the greatest impact to mail services may be around the December holidays, with a reduction of service diminishing their ability to deliver packages on time. Union leaders said that some people are only getting mail a few days a week, even when postal workers stay out until 8 and 9 p.m. But the same leaders, during a virtual roundtable of Minnesota postal workers hosted by Rep. Dean Phillips, Democrat of Minnesota’s Third District, also said they were confident that election mail will be delivered.
Regional representatives for the USPS in Minnesota, western Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Quad Cities Area in Illinois agreed, saying the postal service has more than enough capacity to handle voting by mail, contradicting DeJoy’s initial letter.
But union members are worried about how these changes will impact shipping. “I’m more worried about the long term effect, the holidays and further out,” said Peggy Wheeler from the American Postal Workers Union.
Samantha Hartwig, president of the Minneapolis branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said in an interview that mail received by the city’s post offices, before the changes, was typically sent out the next day. That pace has slowed, but the city is not experiencing huge stacks of mail backed up.
But even then, some affiliated with USPS suggested that they are very concerned about voting by mail.
“Do I believe that the intentions are to destroy the mail service, destroy the unions and create havoc with our backbone of our democracy, our right to vote?” former St. Paul Postal Workers Union President Tom Edwards asked at a rally in support of USPS last Saturday. “Yes, I really do.”
How will it impact voting by mail in Minnesota?
Republican political strategists have long tried to restrict voting rights, with some, including Trump, outright suggesting that the current barriers to voting help them win.
Trump’s own words lend credibility to the idea that he aims to prevent voters from using vote by mail. Last Saturday the president tweeted that vote by mail would allow people to vote multiple times (it does not). “So now the Democrats are using Mail Drop Boxes, which are a voter security disaster,” he said in part. White House staff have also devoted their time to trying to discredit vote-by-mail, saying that universal mail-in voting would lead to fraud (research suggests it would not).
It’s unclear what impact the changes at USPS will have on vote by mail, but Simon, who approves of Ellison’s lawsuit, said he is “alarmed.” And the postmaster general’s comments have not inspired him to confidence, in terms of mail sorting capacity.
“I had hoped to take the postmaster general at his word when he said a couple of days ago that he was suspending or postponing some of the measures that he had taken that had the direct effect of slowing down the mail,” Simon said. “This new reporting suggests that that’s not true, which is why I’m happy that the lawsuit that Minnesota has joined is going forward.”
Vote-by-mail is expected to be a major factor in the upcoming general election In the 2020 primary election, six out of every 10 Minnesotans cast their ballot by absentee or mail — triple the voter turnout of the 2016 presidential election year — according to the Star Tribune. But many of the changes made to the postal service were brought to attention right after Minnesota’s primary, prompting concerns mostly for the general election.
“Keep in mind, caught up in any changes that affect ballots are people’s pharmaceuticals, their benefit checks, their other valuable transactions that may hinge on mail receipts,” Simon said. “It’s really unfortunate.”
Simon advised that Minnesotans get in their ballot as early as possible, but also added that because of a recent court ruling, LaRose v. Simon, ballots can be postmarked as late as election day. As long as it gets there in seven days, the ballot is supposed to be counted, according to a consent decree approved by the Ramsey County District Court.
Simon said that he has full confidence in the state leadership at USPS. He said that anecdotally, on primary day, one post office in a rural county delivered the mail three times just to make sure every ballot was delivered to be counted.
“The folks we’ve dealt with in Minnesota, when it comes to the Postal Service have been very helpful, very accommodating, and really cooperative,” Simon said. “It’s the higher ups in Washington that I lack confidence in.”
Solomon Gustavo contributed to this report.