Postal Service, Under Political Spotlight, Preps For Surge In Election Mail
Absentee ballots for the upcoming November election have already been mailed out to voters in North Carolina, and voters in some two dozen additional states can expect theirs in the coming few weeks. Because of the coronavirus pandemic a record number of Americans are expected to cast their ballots by mail this year.
Social distancing and other countermeasures are expected to prompt many people to avoid going to community centers, elementary schools and other traditional in-person polling places, so voters can avoid crowds and coming into contact with physical voting machines.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy pledged to a Senate panel last month that the agency he leads is "capable and committed to delivering the nation's election mail fully and on time."
Some 37 percent of Americans cited in a recent survey say they plan to cast their ballots by mail this year. Amber McReynolds, who directs the National Vote At Home Institute says that shouldn't stretch the capacity of the postal service.
"They process over 400 million pieces of mail a day," McReynolds tells NPR. "There's not even half of that many voters in the country. So even if every single voter requested a mail ballot, that would essentially add a little bit of capacity. And that would all mean that that would have to be returned on one day, which we also know doesn't happen."
The Postal Service says it is accustomed to handling periodic surges in volume. For example, the agency said it delivered about 800 million packages last year between Thanksgiving and New Year's.
This year, the Postal Service has begun preparing for the election mail influx. Ronald Stroman, a former deputy postmaster general, says much of that preparation involves training postal workers.
"There's a very intense training regimen to make sure that the employees who are going to handle election mail understand all of the processes that are required and all of the practices that have been put into place so that they can efficiently move and process election mail."
Those practices include making sure all ballots receive a postmark, and that the bags and containers they are place in are tagged properly so that they receive special attention.
Stroman says the postal service also has election mail coordinators who work with state and local election boards, so that "we know when mail is coming in, we can make arrangements and sometimes we make extraordinary arrangements to pick up mail and do things that we might not ordinarily do ordinarily do to help expedite consideration."
Upon becoming postmaster general, DeJoy ordered cost-cutting changes at the agency, decreeing, in one example, that late-arriving mail be left behind rather than using additional trucks so the system's fleet could run on schedule.
In addition, some mail sorting equipment deemed surplus was removed from service and postal workers have told NPR their overtime hours were cut.
DeJoy says he didn't order any cuts to overtime from his level, but he also has told Congress that managers below him in the vast postal system often are empowered to make changes within their areas of responsibility, including the removal of machines. The Postal Service's volume of letter mail is in decline and postal officials say in some cases, the capacity isn't needed anymore.
Stroman, who stepped down from the postal service after DeJoy took over, says while there is enough capacity at most postal facilities to handle more mail, there could be some problems at specific locations — where, for example, only a single sorting machine remains in place.
"You have no backup and it may take hours, it could take days to fix that. And if that happens in the middle of an election, what is the impact on the election?" he asked.
Another challenge that has confronted the Postal Service this year are the effects of the pandemic on its workforce.
Stroman says personnel shortages at some facilities could prove problematic, citing past shortages in New York, Detroit and Philadelphia.
"While it's hard to know what the situation will be in the fall, it could certainly strain certain areas that may be experiencing employee availability issues. And so you need to have a plan. What are you going to do if that happens?"
McReynolds, of the the National Vote At Home Institute, says there's an internet platform on which election officials "can submit any issues they're experiencing and it will get the attention of the federal [election mail] team to address that. And that's been in place."
DeJoy, whose appointment has stirred controversy because of his past donations to Republican candidates, including President Trump, established an election mail task force, which met by phone late last month with a number of secretaries of state, including Michigan's Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat.
Benson says she's concerned about actions taken in her state by the postal service, including the removal of 26 mail sorting machines.
"The changes themselves and the messaging around that," she says, "the press coverage of it, and all the controversy has created a scenario where there's confusion among voters about the reliability of what previously was a seen as a reliable way of voting this fall.
Benson says "we need their [the Postal Service's] help to restore citizens' faith in the reliability of their operations as we gear up for an election where more people will be using the Postal Service to vote than ever before."
DeJoy plans to meet again with secretaries of state next week.
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