The United States Postal Service (USPS) may be critical for a successful November election, but budget shortfalls and an unwillingness to assist from President Donald Trump could put polls in danger.
USPS already faced questions over how it would handle the expected spike of mail-in ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic, but several operational changes imposed by new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump ally, have led to mail backlogs across the US as rumours of additional cutbacks swirl, fuelling worries about the November vote.
Democrat demands that a coronavirus relief bill include federal aid for the currently overtaxed post office and funding for the upcoming US election have become major sticking points in negotiations for legislation members of both sides say needs to be passed soon, President Donald Trump said on Thursday.
“The items are the post office and the $3.5bn for mail-in voting,” he told Fox Business Network, saying Democrats want to give the post office $25bn. “If we don’t make the deal, that means they can’t have the money, that means they can’t have universal mail-in voting. It just can’t happen.”
The pandemic has forced states to expand voting by mail as a safe alternative to in-person polling places. Some states are opting to send ballots to voters or allow people to use fear of the virus as a reason to cast an absentee ballot. That has led to predictions of an unprecedented amount of mail voting in the presidential election.
Trailing in the polls, President Donald Trump has been sowing public distrust in USPS’s ability to adequately deliver ballots and has, without evidence, said allowing more people to vote by mail will result in rampant corruption.
The agency’s new leader, DeJoy, a former supply-chain CEO and a major donor to Trump and other Republicans, has pushed cost-cutting measures to eliminate overtime pay and hold mail until the next day if postal distribution centres are running late.
DeJoy, 63, of North Carolina, was tapped to head the service by a Trump-appointed board of governors and started in June. He is the first postmaster general in nearly two decades who is not a career postal employee.
DeJoy has said repeatedly that the Postal Service is in a financially untenable position and needs to rein in expenses. This past week, it reported $2.2bn in losses during the three months that ended in June.
Postal leaders want at least a $10bn infusion from Congress as well as regulatory changes that would end a costly mandate that they fund in advance billions of dollars in retiree health benefits.
“Without dramatic change, there is no end in sight, and we face an impending liquidity crisis,” DeJoy told the Postal Service’s governing board on Friday.
Memos from post office leadership, obtained by The Associated Press news agency (AP), detailed an elimination of overtime and a halting of late delivery trips that are sometimes needed to make sure deliveries arrive on time. One document said if distribution centres are running behind, “they will keep the mail for the next day”.
Another said: “One aspect of these changes that may be difficult for employees is that – temporarily – we may see mail left behind or mail on the workroom floor or docks.”
Additional records obtained by AP outline upcoming reductions of hours at post offices, including closures during lunch and on Saturdays. Rumours have also circulated about the potential for entire offices to shutter after the USPS told Senator Joe Manchin that regional managers there have identified 12 offices for “feasibility studies”.
Postal employees have been recently instructed not to talk to news media while on duty, according to another memo obtained by AP.
The changes have taken their toll on the Postal Service’s 630,000 employees.
“As they risk their health each day along with other front-line essential workers, letter carriers have become angry, frustrated and embarrassed by various USPS management initiatives that are now resulting in delayed mail and undelivered routes in many areas of the country,” said Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, which represents nearly 300,000 carriers nationwide.
The new policies have angered lawmakers from both parties and drawn criticism from former President Barack Obama, who said the current administration is “undermining the Postal Service in an election that’s going to be dependent on mail-in ballots”.
DeJoy has been the target of multiple letters from members of Congress who have called on the postmaster general to rescind his measures and have complained about a lack of transparency from the agency.
Eighty-four House members, including four Republicans, signed a letter that said it is “vital that the Postal Service does not reduce mail delivery hours, which could harm rural communities, seniors, small businesses and millions of Americans who rely on the mail for critical letters and packages”.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had a closed-door meeting with DeJoy this past week to discuss the agency’s worsening performance and need for emergency funding. Schumer later described it as “a heated discussion”.
Pelosi and Schumer followed up with a letter to DeJoy that said the operational changes “threaten the timely delivery of mail – including medicines for seniors, paychecks for workers, and absentee ballots for voters – that is essential to millions of Americans”.
During a meeting on Friday with the Postal Service governing board, DeJoy said the agency is not slowing down election mail and remains committed to fulfilling its role in elections.