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What can states do to protect vote-by-mail voters from post office slowdowns?

Make more places for people to drop off their ballots.

What can states do to protect vote-by-mail voters from post office slowdowns?
[Photo: Roman Tiraspolsky/iStock]

In November, when another wave of infections could be peaking, there’s a good chance that you might not want to go to a voting booth in person. But as the postmaster general—a major Trump donor—has worsened mail service, what can be done to make sure that voting by mail works?

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Louis DeJoy, who gave $1.2 million to the Trump Victory Fund and was named postmaster general in May, quickly started cutting costs at the Postal Service, eliminating overtime pay, limiting the use of mail sorting machines, and telling postal workers to leave mail behind to avoid making extra trips, leading to delays in mail delivery. The Postal Service started removing mail-sorting machines and took out more mailboxes. Under pressure, including the threat of multiple lawsuits from states, DeJoy said that he would stop rolling out new changes, though it’s not clear yet how he’ll fix the issues that he’s already caused—or what mechanism Democrats in Congress can use to hold him to his promise.

Any delays in delivery pose a major challenge in an election when more Americans may vote by mail than ever before in history. (They’re also terribly timed for people now relying on the mail for other reasons, including the delivery of medicine during the pandemic.) Voting by mail is far from new—it was first used in the Civil War. One in four Americans voted by mail in the last presidential election. But the sheer scale of the service in the next election will be different, and the fact that DeJoy has cut services is a problem. “I think it’s a pretty significant threat to the functioning of a smooth election in a global pandemic,” says Donald Sherman, deputy director of the nonprofit Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Many states, including almost all swing states, require ballots to arrive by Election Day. In coronavirus-era primary elections, tens of thousands of mail-in ballots weren’t counted because they didn’t arrive on time. Election officials have to work within a tight timeline, says Amber McReynolds, former director of elections for the city and county of Denver and current CEO of the nonprofit National Vote At Home Institute. (Her organization advocates for vote-by-mail options for all Americans, noting that it increases participation, gives voters more time to research issues, and helps states save costs because they need fewer polling places.) “One thing that inherently happens is that there’s a limited amount of time to do a lot of work and serve the entire population.”

In some states, she says, laws let you request a ballot be mailed to you at a date past when it could conceivably arrive, and the Postal Service has justifiably warned states about the issue. “Ohio is a great example,” she says. “They allow voters to request [ballots] up until the Friday before election day, and they mail it out on Saturday. That’s just not enough time. It’s frankly been a problem for a while. I actually was really happy to see the Postal Service send letters to states flagging those sorts of issues, because there are a lot of outdated laws in the country that kind of set voters up to fail because of administrative and outdated policies.”

Some states, wary about the current delays in mail delivery, are working to add more ballot drop-off boxes. In Colorado, McReynolds says that as many as 75% of voters choose to use the boxes, which are located at places like libraries and community centers. “They really do meet people in their everyday lives where they already are,” she says. “So they’re an excellent service. They also enable ballots to get back faster to election officials.” She says that states should also consider allowing voters to drop off ballots at polling places.

But drop-off boxes aren’t universally available, and the mail also needs to function smoothly at a time when the president has repeatedly attacked the Postal Service. In April, rejecting one round of emergency funding that Congress had approved, Trump called the Postal Service a “joke.” More recently, he told Fox News that Democrats were asking for funding for the Postal Service because they “need that money in order to make the post office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting, because they’re not equipped.” Trump and the Republican National Committee have also fought efforts to expand mail-in voting, and Trump has repeatedly claimed that voting by mail causes fraud, when the evidence shows that it is secure.

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“Voting rights to the experts in the AG have made clear that his so-called concerns about fraud are inaccurate, if not just flat-out lies,” says Sherman. “And so we’re left to wonder why this Trump donor—who was recruited by the administration and immediately, in less than two months on the job, took significant steps to undermine voting by mail—what his motivations were.” DeJoy’s concessions under pressure “don’t give me any confidence that he is going to reverse course without continued attention and pressure to these issues,” Sherman says, arguing that constant oversight from Congress and continued public pressure will be necessary until the election. “There can be hearings in the House up until Election Day.”

Voters shouldn’t lose faith in the mail, says Brenda Wright, senior adviser for legal strategies at the think tank Demos. Postal workers deliver more than a billion holiday cards each December. “I think they will ultimately be able to get mail ballots delivered for this election as well, despite the efforts of the Trump administration to slow that down or impede it.” Voters can help by pressuring their elected officials to support the Postal Service, and by choosing to vote early. “They should try to ask for their ballots as early as possible, and they should try to mail it back in as early as possible,” she says. “But no one should feel that they can’t vote safely by mail.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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