A controversy over the Postal Service is raging on the Internets and across the nation, and social media is as usual bringing out the worst in everyone. Resistance Lefties are posting pictures of locked mailboxes without checking to see if mail can be delivered on the other side of the box through a slit (it can). Righties are treating it all like a big joke, posting GIFs of people in tin foil hats in response to anyone who dares raise questions about whether Trump could ever manipulate areas of government under his control for his personal benefit instead of the country’s benefit. One wag observed that the term “going postal” has a new meaning now:
Remember when we used to say "going postal" about losing your shit?
— Caleb Howe (@CalebHowe) August 17, 2020
Because the facts have been murky, I have been reluctant to weigh in. But yesterday, Jay Caruso, someone I respect, linked a Medium article by a supply chain expert that purports to debunk the conspiracy theories over USPS, and Jay has followed up today with his own piece. The articles appear reliable and credible and chock full of facts, so I urge you to read both, but in this post I want to focus on what I perceive to be two major holes in the defenses, as a way of moving the conversation forward.
The first has to do with the removal of mailboxes. Jay says:
It’s another routine procedure the postal service carries out, utilizing data to move underused mailboxes to areas with more volume. That doesn’t matter as photos of flatbed trucks, loaded up with mailboxes have gone viral, providing more “proof” of the sabotage. What also does not make sense for any conspiracy to take place is the photos of mailboxes getting removed hail from states such as California, Oregon, and New Jersey — states Hillary won in 2016 by a collective 55 points. The USPS said they’d stop in the face of the panic, and that’s ridiculous because it lends credibility to the panic.
This is largely the defense to other areas of concern, by the way, such as the removal of mail sorting machines: it’s routine and it’s a plan that has been in motion for a while, so relax! it’s not a conspiracy! But Jay acknowledges elsewhere, quite rightly, that Trump does not deserve the benefit of the doubt: “Trump doesn’t make it easy to dismiss concerns. . . . Now, with all of the said, is there a reason for concern? Yes. Absolutely. Trump has not earned the benefit of the doubt with him openly claiming mail-in voting is not possible with the $25 billion.” (Jay says that’s not true but the point is that Trump linked the two. As we will see below, through, I think there is some evidence that funding is indeed linked to whether mail-in voting can work properly.)
So the real question in each case, whether it’s removing mailboxes or sorting machines, is this: is this truly a routine efficiency measure, or is that explanation a cover for something more sinister?
The Medium article begins the mailbox removal analysis by raising the same argument that this is a routine efficiency measure that removes low-traffic boxes:
[T]here are costs associated with a low-use collect box, and there may come a time when the collection box become too much of a cost burden. It costs money to travel to and check a collection box that sits empty or collects very few envelopes. And collection boxes are moved all the time to adjust to the ebb and flow of mail volume. Given USPS’s financial crisis, it seems reasonable to believe that these changes were to increase efficiency.
Except that the article then cites evidence that this is excuse is not true:
However, a local news station in Montana checked on what collection boxes had been removed. Despite the justification that these mail collection boxes were rarely used, the boxes were in high traffic areas: outside a grocery story, next to a University, in downtown Missoula, etc.
So there’s still reason to doubt the official explanation. Please note that the removal of mailboxes has halted now that all of this public attention is focused on the policy. That’s great. Even if this was a crooked policy rather than a routine one (and the local station in Montana suggests it may have been) I believe in giving bad actors bonus points for stopping once they’re caught. It’s better than continuing.
Anyway, what all of this means for whether USPS is ready for the election onslaught, I’m not sure — although as we will see below, there is (I think) still great cause for concern. On one hand, the New York Times amasses anecdotal evidence of mail slowdowns as of late:
[I]nterviews with mail customers, election officials and postal workers in six battleground states show that mail delays — and 2020 worries — are widespread.
In Ohio, where mail voting is likely to double, piles of undelivered mail are sitting in a Cleveland distribution center. In rural Michigan, diabetes medicine that used to arrive in three days now takes almost two weeks. In the Milwaukee area, dozens of trailers filled with packages are left behind every day. In New Glarus, Wis., the owners of the Maple Leaf Cheese and Chocolate Haus are worried their cheese will go bad now that deliveries that used to take two to three days are taking twice that.
But the same article acknowledges that the rush at election time is nothing compared to Christmas, and we should be just fine … well, as long as the operational changes don’t affect that ability:
Experts agree that the Postal Service has the raw capacity to absorb additional ballots, even if 150 million people decided to vote by mail. In the month before Christmas every year, carriers deliver billions of pieces of mail and packages.
“When you think about it from the standpoint of how much mail they handle, even in their currently diminished state, if every registered voter in the entire country voted by mail, that would be something they could still easily handle,” said Arthur Sackler, who runs the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, a lobbying group representing bulk mailers. “The question is whether these operational changes will have any impact on their ability to do so.”
This leads me to what is by far my biggest concern. Washington Post:
Anticipating an avalanche of absentee ballots, the U.S. Postal Service recently sent detailed letters to 46 states and D.C. warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted — adding another layer of uncertainty ahead of the high-stakes presidential contest.
The letters sketch a grim possibility for the tens of millions of Americans eligible for a mail-in ballot this fall: Even if people follow all of their state’s election rules, the pace of Postal Service delivery may disqualify their votes.
That is flatly unacceptable — and as we will see, it appears to be a situation tied to levels of funding.
Jay’s defense here is that it’s a good thing that USPS is warning people about this change:
The letters were sent out, not because the USPS was concerned about their operations, but the laws governing mail-in ballots in states where they’ve expanded it this year. From the same article:
But the Postal Service gave 40 others — including the key battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida — more-serious warnings that their long-standing deadlines for requesting, returning or counting ballots were “incongruous” with mail service and that voters who send ballots in close to those deadlines may become disenfranchised.
Emphasis again is mine. Pennsylvania, for example, has a deadline of October 27th to request a ballot. That’s one week before the election, and the deadline for the ballot to get counted is November 3rd. Note, that is when the county election office must receive the ballot. A postmark will not suffice.
The other point to consider is this: If DeJoy wanted to sabotage the post office to favor Trump, why on earth would the USPS warn states about their laws governing mail-in ballots?
My problem is not with the warning, but with the changes that USPS has made that make the warning necessary. I turn again to the Medium piece that Jay was linking on Twitter yesterday, which says this:
When local election officials distribute pre-paid postage envelopes with absentee ballots, they have two options: use First Class Mail or use Marketing Mail. First Class Mail is more expensive but faster (2–5), whereas Marketing Mail is cheaper but slower (3–10 days).
Apparently, USPS has informally treated both types of election mail the same, expediting both whenever possible. So local election officials have been opting for Marketing Mail in order to save on costs. (Side bar: elections are funded at the local level and chronically underfunded.)
But USPS cannot do that anymore, because it’s costly. And therefore, election mail will be treated as its paid category. This means some election officials may be advising voters to return ballots on timelines that wouldn’t actually meet the state law’s deadlines.
The bolded language, to me, sure looks like a claim that USPS has made a change to the way it has traditionally handled election mail. In the past, they have prioritized election mail, whether designated First Class or not. Now, they won’t be doing that any longer, and untold numbers of voters could have their votes invalidated as a result. They are evidently citing the fact that it’s “costly” to treat election mail as First Class when it’s not being paid for. Well, if cost concerns are the issue, then they need money.
The problem is, Trump started much of this brouhaha by saying he opposed extra money for USPS, saying that because if USPS doesn’t get the money, you can’t do mail-in voting — and he’s against mail-in voting.
President Donald Trump said Thursday that he opposes much-needed funding for the United States Postal Service because he doesn’t want to see it used for mail-in voting this November.
. . . .
“They want three and a half billion dollars for something that’ll turn out to be fraudulent, that’s election money basically. They want three and a half billion dollars for the mail-in votes. Universal mail-in ballots. They want $25 billion, billion, for the Post Office. 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 said, repeating his false claims that mail-in voting would be “fraudulent.”
“But if they don’t get those two items that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because you they’re not equipped to have it,” Trump added.
Trump has since walked that back, sort of, saying that he will sign a bill for extra funding if Democrats give him other concessions. That is meaningless talk, as he can always say they didn’t give enough. If he’s not made to sign the bill through public pressure, he can always justify refusing to give USPS the money it needs to treat all election mail as First Class, so that people who follow the rules don’t have their ballots disqualified.
This, to me, is a genuine emergency. We are in the middle of a pandemic, in case you have forgotten. (Hey Siri insert smiley face emoji.) Mail-in voting has real problems, but for a lot of people, it’s going to be the only option — or at least, many people will sincerely believe that. If people follow the rules, their vote must count, and USPS cannot cite cost concerns as a reason to change their procedures for handling election mail under these circumstances. It’s unforgivable at best, and given Trump’s stated preference and his history of manipulating government for personal benefit, it’s a conspiracy to steal the election at worst. But we don’t have to leap to the latter conclusion to say it’s unacceptable in any event.
Yes, maybe USPS is whining for more money like every bureaucracy does. Maybe the evil unions are behind their position. I don’t care. Give them the pittance they say they need, but tell them they are jolly well handling every piece of election mail as if it’s the top priority. Nothing else is acceptable.