Post office relents on cutbacks as NJ, others prepare to sue it
WASHINGTON — Facing public pressure and state lawsuits — including from New Jersey — the Postmaster general announced Tuesday he is halting some operational changes to mail delivery that critics warned were causing widespread delays and could disrupt voting in the November election.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said he would “suspend” his initiatives until after the election “to avoid even the appearance of impact on election mail.”
The abrupt reversal comes as more than 20 states, from New York to California, announced they would be suing to stop the changes. The states, along with lawmakers and others, want to ensure voters are able to use mail-in ballots if they prefer to avoid polling places due to health risks from COVID-19.
"Voting by mail is safe, secure, and reliable," New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said in a Tweet Tuesday confirming the Garden State would join the suit. "We intend to keep it that way. As AG, I've made it my mission to hold accountable those who try to corrupt our political process."
The tweet came shortly before DeJoy's statement.
“The Postal Service is ready to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives,” DeJoy said in the statement.
Gov. Phil Murphy confirmed last week New Jersey would vote this year mostly through mail-in ballots, following the broad strokes of its plan for this year's primary. Murphy called that effort "not perfect, but overwhelmingly a success."
But the primary election did see some significant challenges. Notably, 1 in 10 ballots were rejected because of errors such as issues with signatures.
Murphy said some lessons have been learned since then. He's planning for more secure dropboxes to be in place, he said.
Because the November election is open to anyone — not just party-registered voters — all registered voters will get ballots in the mail. Anyone who shows up in person regardless will cast a provisional ballot, which would be counted once election officials verify the same person hasn't already voted by mail.
Murphy has said polling places would be scaled back compared to a typical election, but there will be at least one in every municipality. Murphy's Executive Order signed Friday also said a minimum of half of all polling places in each county will be open.
In all elections, provisional ballots are verified and counted before results are certified. News agencies and campaigns often call winners before they're in, if there aren't likely enough remaining to sway an election even once counted — but no election is formally considered complete until the full vote is certified.
Just days ago, the postal service warned 46 states and the D.C. it couldn't guarantee all ballots would arrive this November in time to be counted, based on their current deadlines for sending ballots in the mail.
DeJoy, in his statement Tuesday, said the USPS "will play a critical role this year in delivering election mail for millions of voters across the country."
"The Postal Service is ready today to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives this fall," he said. "Even with the challenges of keeping our employees and customers safe and healthy as they operate amid a pandemic, we will deliver the nation’s election mail on time and within our well-established service standards."
He also said the USPS would expand a leadership taskforce on election mail and work with state leaders to coordinate throughout the country.
He said the he wanted to assure Americans "retail hours at Post Offices will not change, mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes will remain where they are, no mail processing facilities will be closed, and we reassert that overtime has, and will continue to be, approved as needed."
President Donald Trump has flatly denied he was asking for a slow-walk of the mail. But DeJoy, a Republican donor with no previous postal management who took control of the agency in June, was facing pressure by Democrats to halt any changes as millions of Americans prepare to vote by mail during the COVID-19 crisis.
Demonstrations were being held Tuesday in several cities.
In the pivotal swing state of Ohio, Attorney General Dave Yost pleaded with Trump to postpone any needed changes to the Postal Service until after Election Day. GOP Sen. Rob Portman and other Republicans in Ohio's congressional delegation urged DeJoy to “ensure timely and accurate delivery of election-related materials.”
At the White House, Trump leveled fresh assaults Tuesday on mail-in voting and universal ballots. More Americans than ever are expected to choose to vote absentee this year instead of risking health concerns by voting at polling places during the coronavirus outbreak.
“You can’t have millions and millions of ballots sent all over the place, sent to people that are dead, sent to dogs, cats, sent everywhere,” Trump told reporters.
"This isn’t games and you have to get it right,” Trump said.
Experts say examples of ballot fraud have been overstated. The Brennan Center for Justice in 2017 ranked the risk of ballot fraud at 0.00004% to 0.0009%, based on studies of past elections.
Trump made clear last week that he was blocking $25 billion emergency aid to the Postal Service, acknowledging he wanted to curtail election mail operations, as well as a Democratic proposal to provide $3.6 billion in additional election money to the states to help process an expected surge of mail-in ballots.
Congress is not in session but Speaker Nancy Pelosi is calling the House back to Washington over the crisis at the Postal Service, setting up a political showdown amid growing concerns that the Trump White House is trying to undermine the agency ahead of the election.
The House is expected to vote Saturday on legislation that would prohibit changes at the agency. The package will also include $25 billion to shore up the Postal Service, which faces continued financial losses.
DeJoy and the head of the Postal Service board of governors are also set to testify Monday in the House.
“We have to save the Post Office from the President now,” Pelosi said late Monday on MSNBC.
The top Democrat on the Homeland Security panel seeking DeJoy’s testimony, Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, called the Postal Service “a lifeline” to Americans.
“We must ensure they can continue to count on dependable and timely delivery,” said Peters.
The Postal Service is among the nation’s oldest and more popular institutions, strained in recent years by declines first-class and business mail, but now hit with new challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. Trump routinely criticizes its business model, but the financial outlook is far more complex, and includes an unusual requirement to pre-fund retiree health benefits that advocates in Congress want to undo.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who sent senators home for a summer recess, distanced himself Monday from Trump's complaints about mail operations. But the Republican leader also declined to recall senators to Washington, vowing the Postal Service “is going to be just fine.”
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and other Democrats, meanwhile, urged the postal board to use authority under a 1970 law to reverse operational changes put in place last month by DeJoy. If he declines to cooperate, "you have the authority, under the Postal Reorganization Act, to remove the postmaster general,'' the senators said in a letter to board members.
The Postal Service said it has stopped removing mailboxes and mail-sorting machines following complaints from lawmakers and customers. It said it would stop removing its distinctive blue mailboxes through mid-November.
The legislation set for Saturday's vote, the “Delivering for America Act,” would prohibit the Postal Service from implementing any changes to operations or level of service it had in place on Jan. 1. The package would include the $25 billion approved as part of the COVID-19 rescue that is stalled in the Senate.
DeJoy, the first postmaster general in nearly two decades who was not a career postal employee, has pledged to modernize the money-losing agency to make it more efficient. He eliminated most overtime for postal workers, imposed restrictions on transportation and reduced of the quantity and use of mail-processing equipment.
Meanwhile, the Postal Service is seeking a short-term rate increase that would raise prices on commercial domestic competitive parcels, including Priority Mail Express, Priority Mail, first-class package service, Parcel Select and Parcel Return Service. The agency cited increased expenses, heightened demand for online packages due to the coronavirus pandemic and an expected increase in holiday mail volume.
Postal workers are increasingly worried about their ability to deliver for the fall election.
In a letter to postal staffers last week obtained by The Associated Press, DeJoy said his policies have brought “unintended consequences that impacted our overall service levels,” but added that the Postal Service “must make a number of significant changes which will not be easy, but which are necessary.”
Nate Castro, a postal staffer and union shop steward in Florida with more than three decades of experience, said the rationale behind DeJoy’s policy changes has been unclear.
“He’s on express mode where he’s not even taking the advice of people that are experienced for years,” said Castro.
(Includes material copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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