WASHINGTON – Amid growing concern about the impact of changes at the U.S. Postal Service on Americans’ ability to vote by mail, Democratic senators on Wednesday called on the agency’s chief to clarify how it will handle ballots and other election-related mail.
In a letter to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, the Senate’s entire Democratic caucus, including Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, raised concerns about reports of delayed mail and changes that could force cash-strapped states to pay higher postage rates to ensure voters get their ballots before Election Day.
“Instead of taking steps to increase your agency’s ability to deliver for the American people,” the senators wrote, “you are implementing policy changes that make matters worse, and the Postal Service is reportedly considering changes that would increase costs for states at a time when millions of Americans are relying on voting by mail to exercise their right to vote.”
The lawmakers’ move came after reporting by The Spokesman-Review revealed that the Postal Service’s top lawyer sent a letter July 31 to Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman warning of “a risk that some ballots will not be returned by mail in time to be counted.”
The Postal Service has for years treated election mail in Washington and elsewhere as first-class mail, which should be delivered in two to five days according to USPS standards, despite counties paying a lower “nonprofit marketing mail” rate. But in the letter to Wyman, USPS General Counsel Thomas Marshall cautioned that ballots sent by marketing mail can take up to 10 days to deliver.
Washington residents can register to vote up to eight days before Election Day, a deadline Marshall’s letter said “may be incongruous with the Postal Service’s delivery standards.”
Wyman, a Republican, told The Spokesman-Review that USPS officials assured her in a Monday call that election mail remains the agency’s highest priority.
But the Postal Service has not publicly stated it will treat ballots as first-class mail, and Wyman said she and Washington’s 39 county auditors are planning to pay the higher first-class rate for ballots sent closer to Election Day. That could mean significant costs for counties that are struggling financially due to the pandemic.
A USPS spokesman did not immediately respond to a question Wednesday about whether the agency had a policy of expediting election mail sent at the nonprofit rate, or was considering implementing such a policy.
“We mail our ballots at about 9 cents apiece instead of 55 cents apiece” for first-class mail, Wyman said. “When you mail out 4.8 million ballots, that’s a big deal and it adds up quickly.”
Wyman said she and the auditors, who talk weekly, are planning to send the initial wave of ballots to voters via marketing mail 18 days before Election Day. As for what to do closer to Nov. 3, Wyman said the group plans to decide “in the next week or two” whether to standardize their approach or leave it up to each county.
In a year of unprecedented mail-in voting, in which three-quarters of voters across the country will be able to cast their ballots through the Postal Service, those decisions carry major implications for equal access to the right to vote.
“That’s a risk not only in Washington state, that’s a risk nationwide,” Wyman said. “Counties that are well resourced are going to have more options and be able to do a better job because they have more money. That’s why we work really hard trying to define standards so that you have equal treatment across all 39 counties.”
Wyman said if Congress provides states with more COVID-19 relief funds, her first priority would be reimbursing the counties for the additional postage costs, but negotiations between Democratic leaders and the While House remain in a stalemate and it is far from clear that more money will be on the way before the election.
In March, the Washington state Legislature passed a bill introduced by Rep. Gael Tarleton that requires the secretary of state to reimburse counties for the costs of elections; that law doesn’t go into effect until 2021.
Tarleton, a Seattle Democrat who is challenging Wyman for her job as the state’s top elections official, said she would favor tapping into the state’s election security fund if necessary.
“I would say a threat to the U.S. Postal Service is a security threat to our being able to conduct our elections safely, freely and fairly,” Tarleton said. “If I were secretary of state, I would go to the Legislature and ask for the authority to spend the funds designated for election security to include funding first-class postage, if that is what we need to do, for every county.”
In their letter to DeJoy on Wednesday, Senate Democrats asked him to commit to providing first-class treatment to all election mail sent at the nonprofit rate, and to make public any guidance given to postal workers on the treatment of election mail.
“Under normal circumstances, delayed mail is a major problem,” the senators wrote. “During a pandemic in the middle of a presidential election, it is catastrophic.”
Some Republicans have also raised concerns about changes at the Postal Service. A spokeswoman for Rep. Russ Fulcher, who represents North Idaho, said he had reached out to a USPS congressional liaison for clarification on their policies. A spokeswoman for Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, said that “if USPS has committed to Secretary of State Wyman that they will treat ballots as first class mail, he will work to hold them to that commitment”
“While it is clear that fundamental reforms are necessary to ensure the continued viability of the USPS,” Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said in a statement, “such efforts must not negatively affect the needs of the American people, especially during this unprecedented time.”
The stakes are even higher in other states that, like Washington, rely entirely on mail-in voting. While Washington voters only need to get their ballot envelope postmarked by Election Day, ballots in other states, including Oregon and Colorado, must be received by county officials on Nov. 3 to be counted.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Aug. 13, 2020, to remove a quote from Wyman saying that USPS officials told her in an Aug. 10 call that there would be no difference from past years in how the agency treats election mail. After the story was published, Wyman clarified that while the officials told her that election mail would remain their highest priority, they did not guarantee the first-class treatment it has received in past years.
Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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