Where the United States Postal Service Stands on Mail-In Ballots Come November
Tanzina Vega: With less than 100 days left before the presidential election, the Trump administration has been attacking the United States Postal Service in the use of mail-in ballots. On Monday, the President tweeted that the Postal Service "could never handle the traffic of mail-in votes without preparation." The Postal Service responded saying it is prepared for the onslaught of ballots.
President Trump has had his eye on undermining the Postal Service for years. According to The New York Times, after the recent appointment of a major Trump donor to Postmaster General, the organization stopped paying overtime, which led to delays in mail delivery. Experts worry that the administration's continual attacks on the Postal Service may place mail-in votes in jeopardy.
Joining me now is Brigid Bergin, City Hall and politics reporter at WNYC. Great to have you as always, Brigid.
Brigid Bergin: Thanks, Tanzina.
Tanzina: Also with us is Christopher W. Shaw, a historian, policy analyst, and author of Preserving the People's Post Office. Chris, thanks for being with us.
Christopher Shaw: Glad to be here. Thank you.
Tanzina: You, Chris, get the first question. What are some of the biggest changes you've seen with the Postal Service nationally under the Trump administration?
Christopher: The biggest one is just what's happened now where we're reducing the ability to have overtime. When you have an institution that has seen a number of employees fall by 10s of thousands in the last 10 to 15 years at the same time that the population keeps growing, so you have more houses, more apartments, more businesses to deliver to, this is a recipe for not being able to fulfill the mission of the Postal Service of delivering to the American people.
Tanzina: Brigid, looking at this from a microcosm here through the New York State primary, which was more than a month ago, the mail-in ballots that were filed then were just finished counted yesterday catch us up, what are the issues that happened in New York?
Brigid: There are a lot of issues Tanzina, but specific to the mail-in voting, New York, because of the pandemic, allowed voters to apply for absentee ballots so they could vote from home. We don't have a vote by mail system here in New York so this was a way to allow people to cast their ballot during this pandemic without having to go to a poll site. New Yorkers took advantage of that by a dramatic number, a tenfold increase compared to 2016 with the number of people applying for absentee ballots. That obviously put a strain on both the Board of Elections to process and get those ballots out, as well as the Postal Service, which is obviously the conduit for managing all those ballots.
One of the things that we saw, in part because there were this opportunity to vote by absentee ballot was because of executive orders issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The laws kept changing throughout the primary season, but to keep on top of all that, ultimately here in New York City, ballots went out particularly late. One of the things that's essential for a ballot to count in New York State is that it needs to be postmarked. It needed to be postmarked by June 23, which was the date of the primary.
Just recently, there was a federal lawsuit over the fact that some voters and candidates were saying that too many ballots that were returned to the Board of Elections were being invalidated because they were missing that postmark. That was the subject of a hearing and a decision that actually just came this week, where the judge ruled that many of those ballots needed to be counted even if they were missing a postmark, because based on the testimony that was given from the Board of Elections and the Post Office, there had been some problems. A lot going on there but also a lot of opportunity to make some changes before November.
Tanzina: Chris, when you hear examples like what Brigid just described in New York, this was really an issue of postmarks, which I think a lot of voters were probably surprised by. When you hear what's happening in New York and what's going on, what do you think about what the country might be facing in November if, as Brigid suggests, changes are not made soon enough?
Christopher: We have different systems for what needs to happen to about in terms of, does it need to be on election day, does it need to be postmarked by Election Day, and they're different in every state. We need to be prepared for this, and we need to have the Postal Service talking to the secretaries of state in the different states to make sure that those ballots are going to be counted.
Tanzina: Chris, are you worried that as we head into this election, that we just mentioned at the top that the new Postmaster General for the US Postal Service is also a big Trump donor? President Trump has often placed people who are very supportive of him in positions of power, but are you worried that that move is politicizing the post office and the service that all Americans regardless of political affiliation rely on?
Christopher: I am worried about that, and I'm also worried about when he talks about how the mailing in Dallas is somehow likely to lead to fraud or a rigged election because it really undermines the basic idea of a democracy. The most important thing we do together as a nation is vote, and these kinds of statements really undermine the legitimacy of the election. I think that's a very, very troubling prospect going forward.
Tanzina: Brigid, what are you hearing from the postal workers union about their ability to do the work that needs to happen for upcoming elections?
Brigid: Yes, I've spoken to two of the union leaders here in New York, particularly in Brooklyn, where we saw some of the highest numbers of ballots that were delivered missing a postmark. I talked to Tom McMenamy, who is president of the American Postal Workers Union. He's got about 1400 members, the retail clerks, drivers, mail processors. He said his members are absolutely feeling the impact of these new Postmaster General's policies, and it's a real concern to him.
As a union leader, he sees it as a real imperative that though by mail and/or absentee ballot voting here in New York, goes smoothly and works well, and all votes are counted. He thinks that will benefit his members. The way he said it to me was this whole notion that they would potentially leave mail behind. That goes against everything that they're trained to do, with the Postal Service, it's always about hustling to get the mail out. He also said the pandemic has hit the agency really hard. They're not working at full capacity. They need more support in that regard. He really feels like some of these changes are a disservice. He knows that mail standards have been slowing down over time, and he's concerned that this administration wants to just slow them down even more.
Tanzina: Chris, I'm thinking about historical precedent here as well. Have we ever seen a president take aim at the Postal Service in the way that the Trump administration has?
Christopher: I can't think of any time when we've had the Postal Service be in the crosshairs of an administration. There has been a campaign going back for decades now to try to undermine the Postal Service as a government agency from libertarians who don't like the idea of government services, and they certainly haven't liked this example of a successful government service, and serves the American people universally on a uniform basis, a democratic government service. That's been going on for a long time, and that's something that the post office has had to contend with for many years, but we've never had a President move aggressively against the post office in this way. It is unprecedented.
Tanzina: The President has said that mail-in ballots can open the door to voter fraud. This is a big political talking point. I don't believe that there's any proof of that. Chris, have you found any proof of that?
Christopher: No. The state that's been doing this the longest in terms of having all ballots go through the nail is Oregon, which has been doing it since 2000, and it's in the case of about 50 million ballots over those past 20 years. It's something like two cases of voter fraud. It really is not an issue we have to be worried about in terms of the election issue. We have to be worried about is making sure the Postal Service is prepared and ready to get these ballots where they need to be.
Tanzina: Brigid, you said that this is also an opportunity for improvements to the Postal Service, and how New York, in particular, learned what lessons New York has learned from this last election. What have they learned? Are there changes that are going to be implemented before 2020?
Brigid: I think some of the changes can be implemented by legislatures. In the case of New York, what we're seeing is the state legislature saw what happened during this primary, saw what came out during this federal case, and has started to make some policy changes in terms of what legitimizes the ballot. If you're going to say that it needs to have a postmark, but knowing some of the constraints that this federal agency is operating under, maybe you need to make sure that the date when that valid is received, it makes sense.
In the case of this federal lawsuit, the judge ruled that any ballots received by June 24th or 25th, two days after the primary, the missing postmark could still be counted, and there is a piece of legislation in Albany that has already passed both the State Assembly and Senate that would allow for ballots received the day after an election, even if they're missing a postmark, to still be counted. There are ways that state governments can address some of these issues, even if the federal government doesn't give the United States Postal Service what it needs.
Tanzina: Chris, who is most at risk of being disenfranchised if the Postal Service is experiencing the delays it's experiencing ahead of the election right now?
Christopher: If you look at who we're talking about it's going to be people in rural areas, it's going to be people who are low income, who are going to have a harder time getting to the polls, and who are going to be more likely to experience delays in terms of getting the mail delivered, but the thing is it's the mail's slowing down all around the country, so this could be potentially much more broadly based because the Postal Service is saying, "We need at least a week to deliver these ballots," and so this could be a broader problem than traditionally the people were concerned about who are lacking access, being lower income people, rural people, older people. So that's something definitely to keep an eye out for.
Tanzina: I'm just wondering, is there anything that people can do to make sure their ballots actually make it in in November?
Brigid: As Chris said, the rules are different by state. Here in New York, you have an opportunity to still vote in person. There's early voting and voting on Election Day, and you can also take your absentee ballot to the Board of Elections office or to any of those poll sites, so there are opportunities there. There's no absentee ballot tracking system in New York, but those are the other ways that you can ensure that you don't have to just rely on a middleman to get your ballot where it needs to go.
Tanzina: Brigid Bergin is the City Hall and politics reporter at WNYC. Brigid, how can postal workers reach you if they want to share information with you?
Brigid: I'm on Twitter. My DMs are open at @brigidbergin. Love to hear from you.
Tanzina: Great, and Christopher W. Shaw is a historian, policy analyst, and author of Preserving the People's Post Office. Chris, thanks so much for being with us.
Christopher: Thank you for having me.
Amy Jorgensen: My name is Amy Jorgensen. I'm from Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan. I'm a retired letter carrier after 35 and a half years, and I feel completely safe in sending in my mail-in ballot. I don't feel there's any kind of risk in it being lost, stolen, anything like that.
Karen: Hi, this is Karen in San Jose, California, and since the post office already handles absentee ballots, I really just don't understand the issue with handling more mail.
Katrina: I've heard of towns that are offering drop-off locations for absentee ballots for those of us who want to not show up at the polls, and I think that's a much better idea than having the US Postal Service be responsible for so many ballots. It's really not fair to them, given all the other pressures that they're facing, and the situation that they're in financially. This is Katrina from Maplewood, New Jersey.
Gayle Turner: Hi, this Gayle Turner from Richmond, Virginia. As far as trusting the post for the election, start counting the ballots now. Don't wait until the last moment.
Theresa: This is Theresa from the Brainerd Lakes area. I retired from the United States Postal Service seven months ago after a 30-year career. We always took ballot handling very seriously. It's an honorable responsibility that postal workers readily accept. I am personally offended by the President's inference that it would be mishandled. He is attacking anyone in any institution that could stand in his way or help with his defeat.
Speaker 9?: Although I don't have a postman in the family or anything, I do know my postman both personally, my home postman and my office postman, and they're both incredibly consummate professionals, take their jobs incredibly seriously, and I'm just not worried about them interfering in any sort of election at all. There's no way to alter ballots in any sort of meaningful way. What will obviously alter elections in a meaningful way is to prevent, inhibit, or reduce mail-in balloting, and thus reduce voter turnout.
Lee: My name is Lee Ogozalek, and I live in Dunedin, Florida. My postman assures me that the Postal Service can easily handle any mail-in ballots, but he has also been very concerned that the new Postmaster General is slowing down the delivery of mail very purposely, I guess at the behest of our President so that it looks like we cannot handle mail-in balloting.
Tanzina: 1-877-8-MY-TAKE is our number. This is The Takeaway.
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