How Changes At The Postal Service Could Affect The Election : Consider This from NPR More Americans are expected to vote by mail this year than ever before. But President Trump has called the U.S. Postal Service "a joke," and now a major GOP donor runs the organization.

A USPS employee tells NPR's Noel King that changes from the new Postmaster General are making her job harder.

And NPR's Pam Fessler reports that secure drop boxes for ballots could help some states rely less on the mail.

If you want to hear NPR's latest coverage on Joe Biden's pick for Vice President, Senator Kamala Harris, the NPR Politics Podcast will have a new episode on Tuesday evening — listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

NPR's Up First will have more Wednesday morning — also on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Find and support your local public radio station.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.
NPR logo

What's Changing At The Postal Service, And What It Could Mean For 2020

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/901242514/901482439" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What's Changing At The Postal Service, And What It Could Mean For 2020

What's Changing At The Postal Service, And What It Could Mean For 2020

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/901242514/901482439" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Hey, everybody. Before we get started, just want to say a lot of this episode is about the 2020 election. And obviously, today, Tuesday, just as we were finishing the episode, there was some big news on that front. So if you want to hear more of NPR's coverage later this evening or on Wednesday morning of Joe Biden's choice for vice president, Sen. Kamala Harris, you can check out the NPR Politics Podcast or NPR's Up First. They will have you covered. And there are links to those shows in our episode notes. OK, here's our show.

This fall, more than three quarters of Americans will be eligible to vote by mail. That's according to a new analysis by The New York Times. And the thing is this is more than any other time in history because a lot of states have expanded the ability to vote by mail during the pandemic, and other states already had mail-in voting. But many of these ballots aren't going to get where they need to go without the U.S. Postal Service.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KIM WYMAN: So as we're coming into, you know, arguably the most anticipated election of the century, we have everybody on edge.

MCEVERS: Kim Wyman is a Republican and the secretary of state in Washington state, where all elections have been 100% vote by mail for nearly a decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WYMAN: And my job as secretary of state is to calm the waters and make sure that people have confidence that the election is well-run.

MCEVERS: Even in her state, a place where mail-in voting is the norm - and we have to say, the evidence shows reliable and safe of any widespread fraud - Wyman told NPR this month she's worried about the mail and big changes the Trump administration is making to the postal service.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WYMAN: I'm very concerned that delays in postal delivery is going to have a negative effect on absentee ballots and vote-by-mail elections. And one of the things that needs to happen is states need to have the capacity and the capability to deal with these changes.

MCEVERS: Coming up, what is happening at the Postal Service and why, plus one idea some states are trying when it comes time to vote. This is CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers. It's Tuesday, August 11.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: OK. So the first thing to know is that the U.S. Postal Service is massive. In 2019, it had almost a half a million career employees and 31,000 post offices. That's more than twice the number of McDonald's. The service takes in tens of billions of dollars each year. And if it were a private company, it would rank in the top 50 of the Fortune 500. And yeah, with any organization that huge, it's not going to be perfect.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The Postal Service is a joke because they're handing out packages for Amazon and other Internet companies.

MCEVERS: President Trump has said repeatedly the Postal Service is losing money because it delivers packages for these companies below cost. But actually, the Postal Service makes money on package deliveries. That's been a growing share of its revenue in recent years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOUIS DEJOY: We are at the beginning of a transformative process. Our goal is to change and improve the Postal Service.

MCEVERS: Still, this man, the new postmaster general Louis DeJoy, is making some big changes. For a little background, we should say DeJoy has contributed millions of dollars to campaigns for President Trump and other Republicans since 2016. And like the president, he is from New York. He used to run a logistics company.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEJOY: My first day on the job as postmaster general was June 15.

MCEVERS: DeJoy started this summer after the last postmaster general retired at the beginning of the year. DeJoy made his first public remarks this past Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEJOY: Our financial position is dire, stemming from substantial declines in mail volume, a broken business model and a management strategy that does not adequately address these issues.

MCEVERS: DeJoy said the USPS lost almost $9 billion last year and could be $11 billion this year. But critics would say it's wrong to think about the U.S. Postal Service like a for-profit business that loses money, that its more or less another part of the federal government. Still, it is true the Postal Service is not doing great financially, and that was true long before President Trump took office. The reason has less to do with Amazon and more to do with fewer people sending letters and a 2006 law that required the Postal Service to fund some employee retirement benefits ahead of time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEJOY: I ask members of Congress to take action on this one legislated burdensome issue that will actually make a difference.

MCEVERS: But DeJoy isn't waiting for Congress to make all the changes he wants to make. He's already reassigned or displaced 23 postal executives, changed delivery policies, banned overtime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KIMBERLY KAROL: Yes, we are beginning to see those changes and how it is impacting the mail.

MCEVERS: Kimberly Karol is a mail carrier from Waterloo, Iowa. She's also president of the state's postal workers union. She told my colleague Noel King what those changes look like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KAROL: Mail is beginning to pile up in our offices, and we're seeing equipment being removed. So we are beginning to see the impact of those changes.

NOEL KING: Curious - I hadn't heard about this one. Equipment being removed - what equipment?

KAROL: The sorting equipment that we use to process mail for delivery. In Iowa, we are losing machines. And they already, in Waterloo, were losing one of those machines. So that also hinders our ability to process mail in the way that we had in the past.

KING: Sure - sounds like it would. You've been a postal worker for 30 years. How do you feel about Louis DeJoy?

KAROL: I am not a fan. I grew up in a culture of service, where every piece was to be delivered every day. And his policies, although they've only been in place for a few weeks, are now affecting the way that we do business and not allowing us to deliver every piece every day as we've done in the past.

KING: Do you get the impression that your feelings about him are shared broadly among postal workers? Do people agree with you?

KAROL: Yes, all across the country. We are trying to activate people all across the country and notify the public because my opinion is that the PMG is trying to circumvent the rules that have been set in place to safeguard the public by making changes that don't require public comment but have the same impact as closing offices and/or changing delivery standards. And so this is a way to avoid that kind of public comment, and we're trying to make sure that the public understands that they need to make comment.

KING: Is the Postal Service equipped to handle this upcoming election?

KAROL: Yes. Keep in mind the Postal Service has been in place for 200 years. We have a history of being able to process mail, and we've been developing and perfecting our methods for all that time. So although the postmaster general is taking actions that are starting to impact that, by having that preparation in advance of these elections, we still have the system that will do that.

KING: Last question for you real quick - the Postal Service is dealing with financial pressures. And the argument is, you know, these are cost-cutting measures. We need them. What do you say to that?

KAROL: Well, unfortunately, I don't see this as cost-saving measures. I see this as a way to undermine the public confidence in the mail service. So it's not saving costs. We're spending more time trying to implement these policy changes, and it's costing more over time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: That was Kimberly Karol in Waterloo, Iowa, talking to my colleague Noel King.

If the mail could be slower this year, what does that mean for voting? One expert told NPR this week you should request your ballot right now to make sure you get the process started. And finish early if you can. More and more people will do that the closer it gets to Election Day. Some states make that process easier, like in Washington state, where voters can print their ballot out at home. That way, they don't have to wait for one in the mail. When it comes to sending your ballot back, there is an alternative that's becoming more popular - drop boxes where voters can deposit their ballots to be collected by election officials. Here's NPR's Pam Fessler on that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PAM FESSLER: A steady stream of voters in Detroit, Mich., last week approached a red, white and blue metal box right outside the city's main election office. The box looked a little like a high-tech trash can or recycling bin.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Have a great day.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANKING)

FESSLER: Instead, it was one of several hundred ballot drop boxes located across the state. More than a million Michigan voters decided to cast absentee ballots in the primary rather than go to the polls. But many, like Elizabeth Dandridge, didn't want to count on the post office to deliver those ballots.

ELIZABETH DANDRIDGE: I wanted to be sure that it was collected in the box. Sometimes the mail's delayed. I'm waiting on packages where people have sent me over two weeks ago, and they haven't come.

FESSLER: And it's a growing concern as the U.S. prepares for a flood of absentee and mail-in voting in November. Many election officials are encouraging voters to use drop boxes instead to make sure their ballots don't arrive too late to be counted. That's already happened to tens of thousands of ballots this year. Connecticut's using 200 new drop boxes. Secretary of State Denise Merrill admits the state was somewhat overwhelmed by a surge in requests for mail-in ballots. And even a week ago, local election offices were still trying to fill those requests.

DENISE MERRILL: There is a lot of confusion just at the moment about when the ballots got mailed, to whom, when they're going to arrive. It's going to be very tight, and the ballot boxes play an increasingly important role in all this because, you know, you shave off two, three, four, maybe five days from when you mail a ballot.

FESSLER: But the boxes are controversial. A couple of Connecticut towns complained that having them outside, available to voters 24/7 isn't safe even though many are protected with security cameras. The Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign have filed suit to block Pennsylvania from using such boxes in November, arguing they could increase the chances for fraud. Drop box supporters dismiss such concerns as completely unfounded. They note that drop boxes have been used in some states for decades without problems. Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law told senators the boxes are an important and convenient option for voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISTEN CLARKE: They complement the limited postal box offices that are available in communities and are just critical to providing access this season.

FESSLER: Access for whom isn't clear. Researchers have found that drop boxes can boost turnout overall, but there's no evidence - at least so far - that one party benefits more than the other. Still, Larry Olson of Laserfab, a company in Washington state that makes the boxes, says demand's definitely on the rise.

LARRY OLSON: I took a couple orders today.

FESSLER: And he's confident their boxes are far more secure than the average mailbox. He says there are multiple features to prevent tampering. The boxes are also made of steel and weigh about 600 pounds.

OLSON: And they're bolted to the ground, so it's not really something anybody can move easily.

FESSLER: In fact, he notes that an SUV plowed into one of them in Washington state last year. Both the box and contents survived.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: That was NPR's Pam Fessler. Additional reporting in this episode from our colleagues at All Things Considered and Morning Edition and from NPR's Miles Parks, and we had editing help from Phil Ewing. For more news, download the NPR One app or listen to your local public radio station. Supporting that station makes this podcast possible. I'm Kelly McEvers. We'll be back with more tomorrow.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.