Under ordinary circumstances, the U.S. Postal Service would be perfectly equipped to manage the surge of mail ballots during the 2020 elections. Experts predict that more than 60 million Americans will vote from home over several weeks. (More than 14 million citizens have already cast ballots.) That’s only a modest uptick in mail volume compared to, say, the Christmas season, when the USPS delivers roughly 28 million packages a day.
But these aren’t ordinary circumstances. Donald Trump’s Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, has already slowed down the mail through a raft of policy changes, including removing sorting machines that could whiz through mail ballots. And the president has admitted to blocking funding to the USPS to undermine its capacity to handle election mail. There’s a reason for that. The president and his GOP allies have indicated that they would use a slow tally of absentee ballots to contest the election results. (Trump said he is “counting” on the Supreme Court to “look at the ballots.”)
At the same time, Republicans are deliberately thwarting policies that could speed up the counting of absentee ballots in battleground states. They are blocking legislation in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to allow elections officials to begin processing and counting those votes before Election Day. In effect, they are manufacturing a crisis that the president could use to challenge the voters’ will.
Trump’s logic is clear: He wants the tabulation of absentee ballots, which will lean Democratic in 2020, to be as slow as possible. He’s deterred Republicans from voting by mail with his lies about “fraud.” As a consequence, Democrats are planning to vote from home in far greater numbers than Republicans. That means the president is relying on the early returns from in-person voting to show him with a lead in key states. Then, as the absentee voting results are announced, and his lead erodes, Trump will challenge those mailed-in ballots as being fraudulent.
Fortunately, the courts are striking down some of the GOP’s gambits to impede voting from home, such as the Pennsylvania Republican scheme to restrict the availability of ballot drop boxes. While these judicial rulings are a major victory for voting rights, it’s still essential to get ballots counted quickly, lest Trump misleadingly declares victory on November 3. New polling has found that 77 percent of GOP voters will trust the president if he claims he won on Election Night.
One cautiously hopeful sign is that the major postal unions and the USPS are in talks to get ballots to elections officials more quickly so that they can be counted without delay. The big four postal unions are the National Association of Letter Carriers, the American Postal Workers Union, the National Rural Letter Carriers Association, and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union.
Under current Postal Service policy, mail dropped in a mailbox gets picked up by letter carriers and taken to the nearest post office. Then, that mail gets put in a truck that takes it to the nearest processing center—usually a huge facility the size of several football fields—where it goes through a machine that determines which post office next receives it. After that, a truck takes the mail from the processing center to the appropriate post office, where letter carriers will pick it up and deliver it.
This process has slowed in recent years because many processing centers have been closed due to cost-cutting. Those delays have been exacerbated since DeJoy’s changes, including getting rid of the much-needed sorting machines. The result is that it takes anywhere from two to seven days between the time a ballot is dropped in a mailbox to when it gets delivered to an elections office. “By and large the real vulnerability is not on the delivery end, it’s what happens at the plants,” a midwestern letter carrier and union official told me. “That’s where mail gets stacked up.”
Postal union leaders have proposed to ameliorate this problem by cutting out the middleman. Rather than take ballots to mammoth processing plants, letter carriers can pre-sort election mail at local post offices themselves and then deliver those ballots directly to local election boards. The reform would cut ballot delivery time to less than 24 hours instead of either days, a week, or even more. The unions argue that this method of sorting should be temporary, just for seven to 10 days before the election
For decades, letter carriers in states and municipalities with a history of vote by mail have used this easy work-around to expedite the delivery of mail-in ballots. According to Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, who used to run Denver’s elections offices, this speedy bypass became an Election Day staple after Colorado letter carriers made a deal with the state’s rural election boards
Still, it would be understandable for some to think it is now too late for the USPS to make a major system change with fewer than three weeks to the election. Fortunately, letter carriers have shown their ability to make such changes under immense time pressure. In the 2020 primary, for instance, Duluth, Minnesota’s letter carriers pre-sorted and delivered local election mail at the local post office, avoiding the processing plant in Minneapolis, which was more than five hours away. “We had a bunch of ballots coming in during the last few days, so we were able to get them to the clerk’s office much quicker,” a Duluth letter carrier told me. “We went through the mail ourselves, put all local ballots into their own bin, and then at the end of the day delivered them directly to the clerk.”
The success of this experiment in jurisdictions across the country, such as Duluth, is why postal union leaders urged national USPS management to adopt the idea in meetings over the last several weeks, according to sources familiar with the matter. Those pleas seem to have made an impact. Sources tell me that USPS management is working on a directive, with a target release date of October 20, telling letter carriers they can pre-sort election mail and deliver it directly to the city or county clerk’s office. (If the mail ballot is for a non-local race, however, it would still go to the processing plant, where it would be sent to appropriate jurisdiction.)
An additional part of the Postal Service’s rationale for ordering all letter carriers to circumvent central processing in the election’s final days is to avoid a crazy quilt of special arrangements throughout the United States, which may lean in different directions politically. Instead, it wants to have uniform standards that can ensure a quicker vote count. “I think it would be nice if there was consistency applied, more of a directive put out by the Postal Service, so that it isn’t 10,000 local election officials having to make 10,000 deals with local post offices on this,” an elections official told me.
Of course, this is still Trump’s America. We don’t know if DeJoy might put the kibosh on this idea to serve the president’s interest. We don’t know if DeJoy, perhaps fed up with criticism that he’s a MAGA collaborator, will authorize the reform. He has held off instituting some of the dreaded changes he ordered until after the election, like cutting overtime. We don’t know if old-fashioned bureaucratic inertia will stop this work around from being implemented. What we do know is that, if this reform is implemented in time, it will help speed the vote count and be a rampart against Trump’s Election Night scheme. For that reason, everyone who cares about American democracy and the integrity of the 2020 election should rally behind the idea now.