Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington’s top elections official warns of ‘very concerning’ changes at Postal Service that could impact voting

The U.S. Postal Service processing and distribution center at 2928 South Spotted Road in Spokane will soon be processing more mail, part of an organizational shakeup union leaders say could result in delivery delays.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Washington election officials are worried that attempts to cut costs at the U.S. Postal Service could impact the November election amid growing bipartisan concerns about the agency’s ability to handle a surge of mail-in ballots across the country.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman said that Washington is preparing for a “very concerning” impact on voting.

The cause for her concern can be found in a July 31 letter to Wyman from USPS General Counsel Thomas Marshall.

Marshall’s letter warns of a “mismatch” that “creates a risk that some ballots will not be returned by mail in time to be counted.”

“Under our reading of Washington’s election laws, the vast majority of your voters should have sufficient time to receive, complete, and return their ballots by the state’s deadlines,” Marshall wrote in the letter, obtained by The Spokesman-Review through a public records request. “However, certain deadlines concerning mail-in ballots, particularly with respect to voters who register to vote or update their registration information shortly before Election Day, may be incongruous with the Postal Service’s delivery standards.”

But U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who took over the Postal Service in June, claimed Friday that ballots won’t be delayed.

“Despite any assertions to the contrary, we are not slowing down election mail or any other mail,” he told the Postal Service Board of Governors on Friday.

Marshall’s letter to Wyman offers a reminder that most first-class mail is delivered within two to five days, while most “marketing mail” takes three to 10 days to reach its destination. A USPS spokesman confirmed that these delivery times are consistent with the agency’s standards, which have not changed since 2015.

But in an interview Friday, Wyman, a Republican, said the letter sent a clear message that is forcing elections officials to change plans with the election less than three months away, and could drive up costs for the already cash-strapped state.

In Washington, voters can register or update their address up until eight days before the election. Wyman said the Postal Service has traditionally treated ballots as first-class mail, despite counties paying the lower marketing mail rate, but she said Marshall’s letter makes it clear that the state will need to pay a premium – roughly six times the usual per-envelope cost – to ensure voters receive their ballots in time.

“If they actually start enforcing those delivery times, our ballots now could take up to 10 days to be delivered,” she said. “Now we are out of the window for someone that changes their address online eight days before Election Day to be able to mail them a ballot and be certain that it’s going to be received, so this is very concerning and it may force us to direct the counties to do all of those later mailings as first-class postage.”

Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, a Democrat, said slower delivery could also cause problems after voters drop their ballots in the mail.

“We’re expecting record turnout in the general election,” Dalton said, “and if we end up with a slowdown of ballots coming back from the voters, this is going to stretch our processing out. That means it’s going to take us longer to have most of the ballots tabulated, so if there are any close races, you’re probably looking at the week after Election Day before some of those races might become apparent.”

The two months since DeJoy took the top job have been marked by turmoil at the Postal Service. The pandemic has worsened the agency’s existing financial woes, although an increase in package business driven by home-bound shoppers has been a bright spot. In mid-July, leaked documents from USPS staff meetings revealed that DeJoy’s “expectations and plan” included eliminating overtime, even if that meant carriers couldn’t deliver all the mail on their routes.

A USPS spokesman told the website Government Executive on July 15 the changes were part of an effort to make the agency’s operations more efficient, but Marshall told House lawmakers in a July 22 letter that the documents were not distributed nationwide and were not “official Postal Service memoranda.”

USPS Western Area Communications Manager David Rupert said Friday that no employees in Washington got the guidance eliminating overtime. But other aspects of the organizational shakeup DeJoy announced in a memo Friday may cause delays in Washington, according to documents obtained by The Spokesman-Review.

In a July 6 letter, USPS Seattle district manager Kenn Messenger informed union leaders that due to low mail volumes, letters and “flats” – like magazines and large envelopes – originating in Yakima, Wenatchee and Tacoma will no longer be processed in those cities, instead being rerouted to either Spokane or Seattle. A separate document indicates that sorting machines will be removed from Wenatchee on Aug. 15 and from Yakima on Aug. 22.

USPS spokesman Ernie Swanson said Friday he was “unable to confirm any concrete internal machine moves in Washington,” but Don Sneesby, president of Local 316 of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union, confirmed that he received Messenger’s letter and was aware of the planned moves, which could force workers he represents to relocate or change roles.

“My concerns are the livelihood of my mail handlers in those places,” said Sneesby, whose local covers Washington and Alaska. “I’m also concerned about service. The further they degrade service, the lower people will value it.”

John Michael Wald, president of the American Postal Workers Union Tri-Cities Area Local, said there is reason to expect mailing delays when letter and flat processing stops in Wenatchee, Yakima and Tacoma. He saw a similar consolidation first hand when the USPS shut down its processing operations in Pasco – along with Everett and Olympia – in 2012.

Wald, whose union represents truck drivers as well as the clerks and technicians who run sorting machines, said that before the consolidation, local mail within the Tri-Cities area would be sorted by machines in Pasco and delivered the next day. When those machines were shut down, a letter sent from Richland to Kennewick had to be trucked to Spokane for sorting, adding at least a day to delivery.

“The impact on the quality of service, the time that it takes, is going to be even further compounded” by the Wenatchee and Yakima closures, he said, “because they’re farther from Spokane than we even are.”

A 2018 report by the USPS inspector general’s office found that the nationwide consolidation effort that closed the facilities in Olympia, Everett and Pasco resulted in just 5.6% of its expected cost savings, while productivity – pieces of mail processed per hour – fell by 14%.

“We’ve far surpassed the point of doing more with less,” Wald said. “We’re doing less with less.”

Wyman said the changes at USPS don’t only impact Washingtonians, who have voted exclusively by mail since 2011. More than three-quarters of voters nationwide will be able to cast their ballots by mail in November’s general election, according to a Washington Post tracker.

President Donald Trump has tweeted, without evidence, that voting by mail will lead to “MASSIVE FRAUD” and “the most CORRUPT ELECTION in our Nation’s History,” even as GOP officials encourage mail-in voting around the country. He has also repeatedly criticized the Postal Service for its financial troubles, suggesting he may increase postage prices.

The president’s statements have raised concerns among lawmakers that DeJoy, a major Trump campaign donor, was installed to destabilize a critical government agency at a time when it is especially essential. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., met Wednesday with DeJoy about his recent changes and made their qualms public in a letter Thursday.

“We believe these changes, made during the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic, now 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,” the Democratic leaders wrote. “While it is true that the Postal Service has and continues to face financial challenges, enacting these policies as cost-cutting or efficiency measures as the COVID-19 public health emergency continues is counterproductive and unacceptable.”

Pelosi and Schumer also wrote that DeJoy, apparently contradicting Marshall’s July 22 letter, confirmed in their meeting that the USPS had implemented operational changes, including overtime restrictions and “the reduction of the number and use of processing equipment at mail processing plants.”

House Democrats passed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package July 1 that would send $25 billion to modernize USPS systems, including its aging fleet of delivery trucks that catch on fire at a rate of one every five days, according to records obtained by the website Motherboard.

The GOP dismissed that bill, but support for the Postal Service – and concern about its recent changes – transcends party lines. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, both Montana Republicans, wrote letters Thursday urging DeJoy to reverse his recent directives.

In a statement, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called the USPS “an indispensable component of our election infrastructure, as our state proved just days ago.”

“Any steps that could delay mail or otherwise impact these functions are simply unacceptable,” Cantwell said, “which is why I’m fighting for more funding to make sure the U.S. Postal Service can continue to do its job and keep Washingtonians connected in the midst of COVID-19.”

A bipartisan group of senators, led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced a bill July 2 that would provide $25 billion to the USPS on the condition that the money be used for coronavirus- related costs. Relief could also come in a new wave of COVID-19 relief spending, although talks between Democrats and Republicans appeared stalled as of Friday.

Corporations that rely on the Postal Service – including Amazon, CVS Health and eBay – recently formed the Package Coalition, a lobbying group that launched a $2.3 million ad campaign Friday to push senators to support Collins’ bill.

John McHugh, a former GOP congressman and secretary of the Army, heads the group and said its members are worried about “all the indications that there may be a non-market-based, politically motivated increase to package prices through the U.S. Postal Service.”

“The other problem that we’re focused on,” McHugh said, “is the inevitable point in the not-too-distant future when the Postal Service runs out of cash. So we’re urging Congress to provide some direct emergency relief to the Postal Service, so when that inevitable time becomes a reality, they’ve got some cash to keep on bringing those packages and medicine and other valuable supplies.”

In Congress, McHugh was one of the architects of a 2006 bill that critics say created, or at least hastened, that inevitability. The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act requires the USPS, which in 2006 was making a healthy profit, to pay more than $5 billion each year to pre-fund 75 years of retiree health benefits. The Great Recession hit a year later, and since then the agency has fallen behind on those payments, although it roughly broke even most years until the pandemic.

“No other government institution or private-sector entity is required to pre-fund health care benefits,” Wald said. “Never mind for people who don’t work for the Postal Service yet. They’re not even born yet. That’s just completely nonsensical.”

A bill that would overturn the pre-funding requirement passed the House with bipartisan support in February, but has failed to advance in the Senate.

The pandemic has thrown both the value and the problems of the Postal Service into sharp relief, and the agency’s fate may turn on what happens in the coming months.

In his introduction to the Aug. 7 memo describing organizational changes that “will fundamentally change how we run our business,” DeJoy wrote, “I firmly believe that these changes will transform us into a truly leader-led organization.”

Wald said he worries that if DeJoy runs the USPS like a business, it will fail to provide the service it was intended for when Benjamin Franklin became the first postmaster general in 1775.

“The Postal Service, from its inception, has always been the government institution that binds our nation together,” Wald said, “in times of war, in times of depression, and in previous times of pandemic. More now than ever, people depend on the Postal Service for bills, receiving goods, and voting by mail. So now more than ever, the Postal Service should be supported and given the full backing of the federal government. Instead, what we’re seeing is the rug being jerked out from under us. It’s really discouraging.”