The news that U.S. Postal Service was taking away mailboxes and mail sorters took over the news cycle this past week, and with good reason. The coronavirus pandemic is leading many voters to cast their ballots by mail, and it’s putting new pressure on the postal service to serve as the messenger of the American electorate. Slow mail isn’t just another bureaucratic hangup. It’s a danger to democracy—and as one graphic shows, some cities are getting hit harder than others.
The infographic, part of an in-depth story by the Washington Post, visualizes where the postal service’s mail-sorting capacity is getting quashed the most. Mail-sorting machines are an important part of USPS logistics: They help direct flat pieces of mail like letters and ballots to the right place, and they’re a lot faster than the manual alternative. One machine can handle up to 30,000 pieces of mail with two postal service workers—it would take 30 workers their entire shift to handle the same workload by hand.
The infographic uses a map of the United States to strikingly sum up where machines are being removed the most. Red circles are proportionate to that city’s reduction in sorting capacity per hour, and the smallest reductions appear in gray. Nearly every state on the map has at least one circle or two, but the largest reductions are happening in parts of the country where presidential race is going to be close.
Thomas J. Marshall, the general counsel for the Postal Service, warned 46 states and DC that ballots cast for the November election might not arrive on time to be counted, resulting in the potential disenfranchisement of millions. The USPS under Postmaster General (and Trump appointee) Louis DeJoy isn’t helping itself: cost-cutting measures, including this one to retire 10% of USPS’s mail-sorting machines, is further hindering the agency’s immediate ability to process mail, like ballots. The Trump administration appears to be legitimizing the “it got lost in the mail” excuse by reducing the capacity of its own postal service, an independent agency of the executive branch, to do its job as best it can.
This is compounded by the fact that the greatest reductions are occurring in major and midsize cities in battleground states, according to the graphic: Columbus, OH, has a reduction of 327,000 pieces of mail per hour; New York City has 324,000, Philadelphia has 310,000, Houston has 470,000, and Pontiac, MI, has 394,000 fewer pieces of mail being sorted per hour. (There are 671 sorting machines nationwide, which can sort 21.4 million piece of paper per hour total.)
As a way to mitigate the stress on the post service in advance of election day, states are encouraging voters to request a ballot early or drop it in drop boxes, rather than send it through the postal service. That’s well and good advice. The trouble is that those might not be options for everyone. Yes, you might have the right to vote as an American citizen. But as this graphic shows, successfully casting your ballot isn’t just up to you.