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Is mail-in voting for the US election under siege?

Julia Mahncke
August 20, 2020

The head of the US Postal Service, Louis DeJoy, is a major Trump donor. Could his attempts to reform the national mail service jeopardize the November presidential election?

USPS trucks with the postal service logo sit in a parking lot
Image: Getty Images/S. Olson

A young man in a blue shirt leans out of his white mail delivery truck. He sorts the few letters in his hand into a row of four mailboxes located at the curb in a small cul-de-sac in Eugene, Oregon. He has been with the United States Postal Service (USPS) for two years and prefers not to reveal his name, just this: "I'm looking forward to the election, because of the overtime!"

Lately, during a typical week, he has spent an average of 60 hours on the job. He hopes to get a permanent position soon. His temporary contract has already earned him enough money to save up for a down payment on a house. When asked whether he's seen any changes at work in the run-up to the November election, he responds, "Oh, there's been plenty of changes, but I don't think I'm allowed to talk about that."

Some changes to USPS are public knowledge. Among other things, employees in many places have been prohibited from working overtime or making additional trips. This can result in mail arriving later than usual. These adjustments were announced in July in an internal memo, which news channel CNN published. It stated that everyone should be prepared for delays: "Temporarily, we may see mail left behind or mail on the workroom floor or docks."

Additionally, photos circulated online showing USPS employees in various cities loading public mailboxes onto trucks and carting them away. In total, USPS has around 142,000 boxes to empty. In Oregon alone, over 30 mailboxes have gone missing since last week.

A public mail collection box with the USPS logo on the side
Public mailboxes, like the one above in Eugene, Oregon, have been uninstalled in various US citiesImage: DW/J. Mahncke

USPS spokesman Ernie Swanson told local media that the boxes were removed because the volume of letters had dropped drastically. The USPS did not respond to DW's request as to who had given the order for the removal and why it could not wait until after the presidential election.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy faces Congress

There might be answers to these questions on Friday, when Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testifies before the US Senate. House speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, also wants her chamber to vote Saturday on legislation that would guarantee USPS additional funding and prohibit changes to the service.

DeJoy is a major donor to Trump's election campaign, and his various business investments, some with USPS contractors, have raised conflict of interest worries. He is the first postmaster general in two decades to have no prior USPS experience.

Earlier this week, he changed course on the reforms, saying he would put them on hold until after the election on November 3.

Louis DeJoy wears a face mask with the logo of the USPS on it
Louis DeJoy came from the private sector to USPS. He is a major Republican donor. Image: Getty Images/A. Wong

USPS is responsible for handling mail-in voting. In order to be able to deliver ballots smoothly and on time, it will probably need more money and more employees, not fewer.

Around 33 million Americans made use of mail-in voting during the last presidential election in 2016. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a massive increase in mail-in ballots is expected this year, as many voters do not want to risk going to the polls. Authorities are predicting that roughly 50% of eligible voters will mail their ballots, which could mean over 60 million people.

Can Trump kill absentee voting?

Extra funding for USPS?

Democrats and some Republicans are ready to help USPS with a financial boost. Trump, however, has issued near daily unsubstantiated warnings that the expected sharp increase in mail-in votes will lead to election fraud. He has spoken out against the idea of an election carried out nearly exclusively by post and does not want to provide any additional funds.

"They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots," Trump said during an interview on cable broadcaster Fox. Without that money, he continued, "…you can't have universal mail-in voting, because they're not equipped to have it."

A hand puts a ballot into a USPS mailbox
Mail-in voting has been a common option in some states for decadesImage: picture-alliance/AP/N. Harnik

While some states have individually approved universal mail-in measures, meaning each voter automatically receives a mail-in ballot, most will continue to have polling stations. Only a few US states vote exclusively by mail, such as Oregon.

Voting by mail ensures that more people have the chance to vote, such as those who live in rural areas or have to work on election day, or those who cannot go to a polling station for health reasons. The concept is not new, and experts say it is safe.

"Any discussion that suggests there are problems with voting by mail is simply incorrect," Phillip J. Cooper, professor of public administration at Portland State University, told DW. "In Oregon, you have an extremely high turnout rate and an extremely low rate of difficulties with voting."

Is confusion Trump's strategy?

Some, like Alex Morgan, see Trump's attacks on USPS and refusal to provide financial as a distraction. He is the executive director of the Progressive Turnout Project, which aims to convince non-voters, who are likely to vote Democrat, to participate in the election.

Like most people, Morgan has great confidence in USPS; according to surveys, USPS is one of the most trusted agencies in the country.

He thinks the problem is that Trump's false claims about postal reliability could have a negative impact. "We do have serious concerns about what psychological impact this has on the election," he told DW. "This is just really shameful. Prior to four years ago, you wouldn't expect this information to be coming from the highest levels of the US government and pointed at its own citizens."

A USPS mailbox shows its collection hours
Fewer overtime hours means mail has gone uncollected or been left in the processing centersImage: DW/J. Mahncke