How Slowing Mail Delivery Affects the Vote Count
Thirty-four states and DC currently allow mail-in and/or absentee voting, as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. However, in five key swing states (listed below in a table) mail-in ballots must be in the hands of local officials by Election Day. Any ballots that were postmarked by then but were not delivered to the county clerk by Election Day cannot by law be counted.
Leading Democrats have argued that a misfunctioning US Postal Service (USPS) could result in many properly completed ballots being thrown out. Any delay in delivering mail will likely impact a higher number of voters in urban areas than in lower turnout rural areas, because their post offices’ workload will be heavier. Urban voters usually veer toward Democrats and not Republicans, discarding ballots from those areas would favor Trump winning a state’s electoral votes in the election.
Democrats’ concerns were raised when Trump-appointed Louis DeJoy, one of his mega-donors, as the Postmaster General in May. Trump has repeatedly said that USPS is poorly administered and running over budget, calling USPS “one of the disasters of the world”, in an interview with “Fox and Friends.”
It has been losing nearly $9 billion annually before the pandemic, which has increased by about 50%. Consequently, Democrats are pushing hard to allocate $25 billion from the negotiated stimulus package to fund a mail service that can deliver on time. That amount of support was recommended unanimously by the Board of Governors of the US postal service, with a majority of Republicans on it and all appointed by President Donald Trump. In addition, a recent poll found that 92% of American voters said they supported direct financial aid for USPS as part of the next coronavirus relief bill.
CNN reported how Trump, in a Fox News interview, said if those funds were not provided to the USPS, he believes it won’t be able to handle the influx of mail-in ballots in the upcoming election. That does not bother Trump, publicly saying that if you have a mail-in election, “you’ll never elect another Republican.” He may have seen the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll which found that Biden supporters are more likely than Trump supporters to say they will vote by mail.
While Trump has denied asking for the mail to be delayed, those who he has appointed to run the Post Office can read his tweets which attack universal ballots and mail-in voting. As a result, Trump’s message is bifurcated, to the public he says, “Speed up the mail, not slow the mail,” but to his subordinates he says, don’t worry about not enabling mail-in voting.
DeJoy apparently understood Trump’s tweets. He immediately reduced USPS costs he deemed to be critical to make before the November elections. One of his first acts was to eliminate overtime for mail carriers. In response, the American Postal Workers Union president, Mark Dimondstein, released data showing that nearly 20% of all work by mail handlers, city carriers, and postal drivers is done in overtime. The Trump administration has not challenged their findings.
A significant portion of USPS’s labor budget is devoted to pre-fund 75 years of retiree health benefits, a period of time almost never seen in other agencies or private companies. The law was passed with the support of the George W. Bush administration. Consequently, it is more cost-efficient to pay for overtime than hire new employees. However, DeJoy has no plans to hire more employees to make up for the cut in hours. He has recently acknowledged that he may extend hours as needed. Given his cost-cutting orientation, the definition of what is needed will probably be very narrow.
The second major cost-cutting change Dejoy made was to remove high-speed sorting machines from a number of cities. A list of those cities was not released to the public by DeJoy, although CNN obtained documents showing that 671 such machines are slated for “reduction” in dozens of cities this year. The agency did start removing machines in June, according to postal workers. USPS spokesperson David Partenheimer told the media outlet Motherboard, “The Postal Service routinely moves equipment around its network as necessary to match changing mail and package volumes.” However, he did not say where they were being reassigned, or even if they were to be.
DeJoy has begun other cost saving changes such as leaving mail undelivered at the end of a shift, taking of mailboxes off the streets, and reducing post office operating hours. The accumulation of so many changes over a short period of time had been initiated without input from line workers as to what would be most effective, and apparently without concern as to the impact on citizens being able to vote.
Looking at the Numbers
To help understand the potential impact of slowing mail delivery, I have compiled the table below from various sources. It shows how a just a one day delay of just 5% of the mail-in ballots in a county could result in ballots not being counted if they were received after Election Day.
To be clear, if voters mailed their ballots a week before Election Day, there is a high probability that they would arrive in time to be counted. Understandably citizens do have some responsibility to mail early. Nevertheless, a study by Tulane professors using National Election Studies data found that in the past 2 decades, between 15% and 24% of voters in Presidential elections do not decide who to vote for until 2 weeks before and up to Election Day. Human nature as it is, this pattern will likely be unchanged in November.
The increase in projected mail-in ballots from the mid-term 2018 elections to this November’s 2020 election is shown in column (4). This figure should not include in-person absentee voting, which allow voters (excused or no-excuse) to fill out and drop off their absentee ballots in person, rather than through the mail.
Column (5) shows how each state’s 7 most populous counties voted in 2016. Normally these would be leaning to vote for Democrats since they contain the largest cities. But in 2016 the majority of the most populated counties in Arizona and Wisconsin voted for Donald Trump.
Column (6) shows what the total vote for Hillary Clinton from the 7 counties from each state was in 2016. It then shows what a 5% drop-off from that total Clinton vote would be. There is no way at this point in time determining what the voter turnout will be for either former Vice President Joe Biden or current President Donald Trump. However, it is evident from these numbers that if the USPS slows or hinders the collection or delivery of ballots from these particular counties, it will widen the gap for Biden to overcome Trump’s vote from 2016 in these critical states. In Michigan and Pennsylvania, the impact would more than double the gap for Biden to overcome.
In response to bi-partisan concerns, the Postmaster agreed to appear before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in a virtual hearing on Friday at 9 a.m. and before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Monday, Aug. 24, at 10 a.m.
Shortly after announcing that he would appear before Congress, Dejoy announced that he is suspending any further changes until after the election is concluded. Hence, no further mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes will be removed from the streets.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said DeJoy’s commitment to hold back on operational changes is insufficient and not specific enough. If USPS does not return sorting machines and override earlier instructions about leaving mail undelivered at the end of a shift, he will pursue filing a lawsuit with over a dozen other state AG’s demanding such actions be taken. No Republican AG’s as of this posting have signed onto this effort.
At the core of Democrats concerns, is whether the USPS will be prepared to efficiently handle a projected significant increase in mail-in ballots so that all citizens have an opportunity to have their mail-in ballots counted. The majority of mail is handled by Sectional Center Facilities that sort, compile and then truck mailed-in ballots to the county clerk. Because of the volume around Election Day, delaying a single truck for a single day could be enough to reverse that state’s electoral vote.
The vast majority of Americans as a recent Pew Research Center poll found that more than 70% of Americans think any voter who wants to vote by mail should be able to do so.
It is not just Democrats who want that right guaranteed, since 49% of Republicans where in that majority. Republican support for mail-in balloting even jumps to almost 70% in states where a sizable amount of the population already votes by mail.
It is not just Democrats who want that right guaranteed, since 49% of Republicans were in that majority. Republican support for mail-in balloting even jumps to almost 70% in states where a sizable amount of the population already votes by mail.
If DeJoy does decide to have USPS properly prepare to meet its obligation to deliver mail-in ballots on time, having a fair presidential election can move forward. Nevertheless, it is still not immune from various types of interventions that are underway to tilt the election results. All concerned citizens need to be aware of those practices and who is promoting them. An educated and informed electorate is our ultimate guarantee of maintaining a functional and responsive democracy.
Nick Licata is author of Becoming A Citizen Activist, and has served 5 terms on the Seattle City Council, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials.