Each day, when Nick Casselli, president of a Philadelphia postal workers union, sits down at his desk on Main Street in the historic town of Darby, where trolley cars still run and the post office is a source of civic pride, his phone is full of alarmed messages about increasing delays in mail delivery.
Casselli and his 1,600 members have been in a state of high alert since Louis DeJoy, a Republican megadonor and an ally of President Donald Trump, took over as postmaster general in May. Overtime was eliminated, prompting backups. Seven mail-sorting machines were removed from a nearby processing center in West Philadelphia, causing further delays. Now post offices are being told to open later and close during lunch.
“I have some customers banging on my people’s doors: ‘Open up!’” Casselli said. “I’ve never seen that in my whole 35-year postal career.”
Similar accounts of slowdowns and curtailed service are emerging across the country as DeJoy pushes cost-cutting measures he says are intended to overhaul an agency suffering billion-dollar losses. But as Trump rails almost daily against the service and delays clog the mail, voters and postal workers warn a crisis is building that could disenfranchise record numbers of Americans who will be casting ballots by mail in November because of the coronavirus.
For the most part, experts and employees say, the Postal Service is still capable of operating as usual. Yet the agency has warned states that it may not be able to meet their deadlines for delivering last-minute ballots. And earlier this week Trump said he opposes new postal funding because of his opposition to mail-in voting, which he complains will benefit Democrats and claims without evidence is riddled with fraud.
At risk are not just the ballots — and medical prescriptions and paychecks — of residents around the country, but also the reputation of the Postal Service as the most popular and perhaps the least politicised part of the federal government.
Philadelphia, a heavily Democratic city in a critical swing state, is a vivid example of how alarmed people have become. Representative Brendan Boyle said his office had received 345 complaints about the Postal Service last month — compared to just 17 in July 2019. Elected officials in several states say they have been flooded by worried calls and emails.
Victoria Brownworth, a freelance journalist in Philadelphia, is among the residents worried about whether her ballot will be counted — and, in her case, also worried about much more.
For Brownworth, who was paralyzed four years ago, the mail is her lifeline, delivering prescriptions, checks and mail-in ballots to her Philadelphia home. But that lifeline has snapped. She said she has received mail just twice in the past three weeks, and she dreads November’s election, worried that her ballot will suffer the same fate as the oxygen tube that she ordered three weeks ago — and has still not arrived.
“It’s just terrifying,” Brownworth said.
“Every day I ask my wife, did we get any mail? She says no.”
DeJoy, the postmaster general, told the Postal Service’s board of governors last week that there would be no slowdown of mail ballots and promised to deliver votes “securely and on time.”
Experts agree that the Postal Service has the raw capacity to absorb additional ballots, even if 150 million people decided to vote by mail. In the month before Christmas every year, carriers deliver billions of pieces of mail and packages.
“When you think about it from the standpoint of how much mail they handle, even in their currently diminished state, if every registered voter in the entire country voted by mail, that would be something they could still easily handle,” said Arthur Sackler, who runs the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, a lobbying group representing bulk mailers. “The question is whether these operational changes will have any impact on their ability to do so. If everything is delayed, that will include the ballots.”
Still, interviews with mail customers, election officials and postal workers in six battleground states show that mail delays — and 2020 worries — are widespread.
In Ohio, where mail voting is likely to double, piles of undelivered mail are sitting in a Cleveland distribution facility. In rural Michigan, diabetes medicine that used to arrive in three days now takes almost two weeks. In the Milwaukee area, dozens of trailers filled with packages are left behind every day. In New Glarus, Wisconsin, the owners of the Maple Leaf Cheese and Chocolate Haus are worried their cheese will go bad now that deliveries that used to take two to three days are taking twice that.
“I’m definitely concerned that votes won’t be counted or that they won’t be able to handle all of the ballots that need to be processed through the post office,” said Cynthia Shumway, whose family owns the shop.
The disturbances have prompted a full-scale political war in Washington, where Trump falsely insists that mail-in voting is wracked by fraud and where billions of dollars in emergency aid that could help stem huge losses at the Postal Service are caught in a partisan drama.
Democratic lawmakers have accused the president of sabotaging the Postal Service as a means of voter suppression and have launched multiple investigations and demanded an end to delays. On Friday, the Postal Service’s inspector general said she had opened an inquiry into DeJoy’s actions.
Boyle, the Philadelphia congressman, for example, said it’s no accident that mail service has become so abysmal in the key Democratic population center in Pennsylvania.
“There is no plausible way for Donald Trump or Joe Biden to get to 270 electoral votes without Pennsylvania,” he said.
While Trump’s war on the Postal Service seems aimed at Democrats, few Americans rely more on the mail than rural residents, many of them Trump voters. As a result, there are also a number of Republicans uneasy about what’s happening with the agency, in particular three Republican senators from largely rural mail-dependent states who are facing competitive reelections this fall: Steve Daines of Montana, Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine.
DeJoy has said he is trying to reform an organisation with a “broken business model” facing a litany of billion-dollar losses and declines in mail volumes.
But voters and postal workers said the Postal Service was more than a business. To Michele Brown, 67, who lives in Morley, Michigan, the post office in the rural community serves as a gathering point and source of stability, employment and a critical link to the rest of the world.
But not lately. Her 73-year-old husband, Bill Brown, went three days without medication to treat his diabetes as the couple waited nearly two weeks for it to arrive in the mail from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I feel like they’re playing games,” Michele Brown said.
“The mail had worked so efficiently. Letters I sent got there the next day. Now you can’t count on any of that.”
Postal workers from small-town post offices to metropolitan distribution centers say they used to operate along a simple motto: “Every piece, every day,” meaning that they did not leave until all of the day’s mail went out the door. No more, they say.
Postal workers say drivers are being sent out according to set schedules whether or not all of the morning’s mail is ready for them, and delivery trucks now have strict cut-off times for when they have to be gone. They say they are already short on staff because of quarantines and the coronavirus, and limits on working overtime are pushing them further behind.
“Mail is coming into the building faster than we can get it out,” said Mary DiMarco, who sorts bundles in a Miami postal facility. “I’m concerned about ballots being handled, that they’re not going to be processed in time.”
The stakes in this year’s election are higher than ever. While nearly one-quarter of Americans voted absentee or by mail in 2016, millions more are expected to mail their ballots this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In Ohio, mail-in voting has been common for more than two decades, and one-quarter of the state’s voters regularly cast their ballots by mail. But some postal workers say the recent changes in work rules have dramatically slowed their ability to deliver mail, raising concerns that votes cast just several days before the election might not make it in time to be counted.
Daleo Freeman, a 26-year veteran of the Postal Service and now the president of the local American Postal Workers Union in Cleveland, described piles of mail stacking up in the regional distribution facility and in postal offices around the region.
“The decisions happened so rapidly. Now we are seeing the effect of those decisions,” Freeman said. “People are coming in every day complaining about how long it’s taking them to receive everything. ‘What the heck is going on?’”
He said further delays had occurred after five mail-sorting machines in the major Cleveland-area distribution center were dismantled in recent days. Critics worried about political influence inside the Postal Service have focused on the removal of 671 sorting machines — about one-eighth of its devices — from facilities across the country.
But a Postal Service spokesman, David A Partenheimer, disputed that there was anything out of the ordinary, saying that the agency was removing the sorting machines because of declines in the volume of mail. While people are receiving far more packages these days, business and commercial mail is down sharply.
“The Postal Service routinely moves equipment around its network as necessary to match changing mail and package volumes,” Partenheimer said.
There have already been problems with this year’s elections in which mail ballots played a more prominent role.
Hundreds of ballots in Wisconsin were left in tubs, unaccounted for, at the Milwaukee processing and distribution center during the state’s primary in April. About 160 ballots were erroneously returned to a local election office, while another 390 had issues with the postmark that led to confusion as to whether they could be counted, according to a report from the Postal Service inspector general.
Ohio ran a delayed primary election that was marred by widespread reports of mail slowdowns, especially in Northwest Ohio, prompting Secretary of State Frank LaRose to urge the Postal Service to devote additional resources to making sure ballots were delivered on time.
Now LaRose, a Republican, said that he is concerned about possible delays in mail delivery despite assurances from postal officials that the changes will not affect how quickly ballots are sent.
“On the ground it seems like that’s not necessarily the case. It seems like there are impacts,” he said Friday. “They need to be very careful about making changes to something that we rely on so much for something as essential as elections administration.”
In Butler County, north of Cincinnati, two postal officials walked into the election board offices on 8 May, more than a week after the April 28 elections, carrying two buckets filled with 317 unopened ballots that had been discovered too late to be counted.
“We have not received a good explanation yet,” Diane Noonan, the Republican director of the Butler board of elections, said. “The thing I was told that day was that it was found in a corner of a warehouse.”
Noonan said she is concerned about the possibility that issues with the mail service could impact the ability of her office to accurately count the votes in November, especially if voters wait until the last minute to request a ballot. She has been urging voters to apply early for a mail ballot and return it immediately.
In Ohio, state law allows voters to request a mail-in ballot up until noon on Saturday, 31 October, just three days before the election. Even under the best of circumstances, that would leave little time for the Postal Service to deliver a blank ballot and then turn around and deliver the completed one by Monday, 2 November, the deadline in Ohio.
In Racine, Wisconsin, Melissa Rymsha, a stay-at-home mother of two, does not want to risk contracting the virus in November, so she plans to vote by mail. But the face masks she recently ordered have been stuck in transit for days, and she worries that in several weeks, her ballot could be, too.
“I’m kind of just going to cross my fingers and hope that it goes through the way it’s supposed to do,” she said. “I don’t really have too much of an option.”
Luke Broadwater, Jack Healy, Michael D Shear and Hailey Fuchs c.2020 The New York Times Company