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The vital role of the U.S. Postal Service in American elections

With the election nearing and many parts of the U.S. in the grips of COVID-19, mail-in ballots have become a prominent issue. But President Trump has disparaged both the U.S. Postal Service and the integrity of voting by mail. What effect could his criticism have? William Brangham talks to Mark Dimondstein of the American Postal Workers Union and then Spencer Cox, lieutenant governor of Utah.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With just about three months to go before the election and many parts of the country still locked in the grip of the coronavirus outbreak, the call for more Americans to vote by mail has been growing.

    But, as William Brangham reports, the prospect has raised some concerns, since the Postal Service itself is caught in the crossfire — crosshairs of political battles and deeper funding problems.

  • William Brangham:

    There are new reports suggesting the U.S. Postal Service is experiencing significant delays and warning signs that could impact November's election.

    Last month, the new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, who was a major donor to President Trump and appointed in May, issued new guidance that effectively slowed down the Postal Service.

    Postal workers are now instructed to leave mail behind if delivery would force them to work overtime. That's a reversal of longtime policy. Those parcels would be delivered the following day.

    DeJoy says these are cost-cutting measures to help the agency's perpetual budget shortfall. USPS lost $3.9 billion in 2018. But critics say this is a deliberate attempt to hurt the Postal Service ahead of an election where, because of the pandemic, more voters are expected to cast their ballots by mail, rather that voting in- person.

    Former President Obama, during his eulogy for Congressman John Lewis last week, said President Trump was attacking voting rights in America:

  • Former President Barack Obama:

    But, even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting, even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that's going to be dependent on mail-in ballots, so people don't get sick.

  • William Brangham:

    It comes as President Trump has ramped up his attacks on the Postal Service, which he has called a joke, and more specifically on mail-in ballots, falsely claiming that they are different than absentee ballots and that they're rife with fraud.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We all agree that absentee voting is good. Mail-in ballots will lead to the greatest fraud.

  • William Brangham:

    Meanwhile, there is already some evidence that the president's rhetoric is influencing who is asking for those mail-in ballots.

    According to the Florida Division of Elections, more than 1.3 million Democrats in the state have requested mail-in ballots for this month's primary. That's compared to 924,000 Republicans requesting the same.

    And elections officials have already received more than 513,000 completed ballots from Democrats vs. nearly 399,000 from Republicans.

    With three months to go until Election Day, Democrats are pushing for more money for mail-in ballots in the negotiations over the next coronavirus relief bill. They say that money could provide relief for the Postal Service.

    We should also say that a handful of states, including some battleground states, will begin sending out mail-in ballots to voters later this month.

    So, we wanted to talk to some of the people who will be delivering those ballots to voters.

    Joining me now is Mark Dimondstein. He's the president of the American Postal Workers Union.

    Mark Dimondstein, thanks very much for being here on the "NewsHour."

    Before we get to the election, could we talk a little bit about these delays? We have seen these reports about mail service having delays and packages and envelopes backing up.

    Are your workers seeing that? Are those delays real? And what is causing them?

  • Mark Dimondstein:

    Well, first, thanks for having me on.

    The — all the reports we're getting from the people we represent, who are working the mail, sorting the mail, working in retail units, hoping to get letter carriers out in the street, is, these delays are real. It runs counter to everything that dedicated postal workers stand for.

    We treat the mail as if it's our own. We believe in our motto and the law, prompt, reliable and efficient services. And prompt means speedy.

    So, postal workers are not happy about it. The union vehemently opposes anything that delays the mail.

    Now, what's causing it is the new — the new postmaster general, who came in about six weeks ago, from the outside, from the business side, and not very much knowledge about the inner workings of this service. And I'd like to emphasize, it's not the United States postal business. It's the United States Postal Service. And that's there for a reason.

    But he's instituted some policies in a very arbitrary way, in our view, that's cutting the hours of the workers, which means, if the same worker is there, and you cut hours, then the work can't get done, changing transportation of mail, and changing some of the directives in whether people can wait to go out on a delivery site, to get to your home and your business, to get all the mail into the system.

    He says, no, you have to get out there. If you got to get out there at 8:30, you got to be out there at 8:30, not 8:40.

    So all the reports we're getting from both the postal workers and from customers is that, in the last few weeks, mail service has been — has been degraded. And that's wrong for the Postal Service. It's going to drive revenue and business away. And it's really wrong for the people of this country.

  • William Brangham:

    Now, this new postmaster general that you mentioned, he argues that this is necessary cost-cutting, these measures he's put in place, that this is a pandemic, there's a slowdown, everything will get there eventually on time, but that this is just what happens when — that there has to be some belt-tightening.

  • Mark Dimondstein:

    Well, again, this is a service, not a business.

    There's no question that the economic impact of the pandemic is real on the Postal Service. That's why Congress needs to act. They had a chance in March, with the CARES stimulus package. They took care of the private side and private corporations, to the tune of $500 billion, but refused to take care of the public sector and the public Postal Service.

    They now have another opportunity to do this. The House of Representatives has passed $25 billion of COVID-related relief. This is an emergency.

  • William Brangham:

    As you also know, we have been reporting that there's this concern about the election, that, with the pandemic, that there's going to be a tidal wave of people mailing in ballots, both receiving ballots and then sending those ballots back in.

    Do you worry that these slowdowns could be legitimately affect the ability of the Postal Service to deliver those ballots in time?

  • Mark Dimondstein:

    Sure, it could have an impact.

    So, the states, who run the elections — the Postal Service doesn't — might have to adapt and get ballots out a few days sooner. People may have to be more cognizant of making sure to get their votes in. If it's a postmark — and every state is different — if it's a postmark, then, as long as it's postmarked, then it should be counted.

    But we want the post office to correct the problem long before we get to the election. Mail should not be delayed. Mail should not be slowed down. Congress should act.

    And it's ironic, and, in a way, shameful and sad, that as postal workers are on the front lines in this pandemic, binding the country together — that's our mission — connecting people in these challenging times, that, somehow, this wonderful institution that belongs to all of us is not going to have the support from Congress and this administration that it should.

    Contrary to what the president of the United States says, the Postal Service is not a joke. That's an insult to every hardworking postal worker. It's an insult to every customer in this country.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, thank you very much for your time.

  • Mark Dimondstein:

    Thanks so much for having me.

  • William Brangham:

    We turn now to a person who is in charge of running an election.

    Utah has had a long experience with mail-in voting and officials there say that it has helped drive voter turnout.

    Spencer Cox is Utah's lieutenant governor. And he's in charge of overseeing elections in the state. He's a Republican who is also running for governor this fall.

    Lieutenant Governor, thank you very much for being here.

    You, as I mentioned, have had a good deal of experience with mail-in voting. Make the case. Why does it work? Why do you like it?

  • Spencer Cox:

    Well, we have had tremendous success here in the state of Utah.

    And the reason we like it, I think, are some of the reasons that you just mentioned. First and foremost, it has really increased turnout here in our state.

    Give you just a quick example, if you compare the 2016 election, which was — many counties were by mail then — we did a slow rollout, but not every county adopted it right away — vs. the primary election that we just went through, we actually doubled voter turnout in that primary election vs. 2016.

    The people of the state of Utah really like it, when we talk to them, because it leads to a more informed voter. So often, we hear stories of people that, they get in the ballot booth, and they went there to vote for maybe the governor, and there are all these down-ballot races, or there may be an initiative on the ballot, and they knew nothing about that.

    In this case, they get their ballot two to three weeks before the election. They have an opportunity to actually do some research, to get informed, contact the candidates, visit their Web site, make that decision, and then mail it back.

    It's been a very popular thing here in the state of Utah.

  • William Brangham:

    You are one of five states, I believe it is, that does universal mail-in voting.

    As you well know, President Trump has repeatedly cast out about the process. He says that it's rampant with fraud. He's threatened to sue some states to block them doing what you do in Utah. Are the president's allegations true? Is there widespread fraud? Is there widespread fraud in your system in Utah?

  • Spencer Cox:

    Well, I can't speak for other states, but I certainly can speak authoritatively here in the state of Utah.

    We have worked very hard to put in place on checks and different organizational structures to make sure that there isn't fraud. We're very careful about that.

    We actually review every signature, that we have people that that's all they do is review signatures, compare signatures to the signatures that we have on file.

    We routinely audit those processes to make sure that there is no voter fraud. We are constantly updating our voter list, removing people who have — who have passed away, changing addresses for people that have moved. We work very closely with the postal system, with the United States Postal Service, to make sure that we're in contact. And they let us know when there's a change of address for people.

    So, we have done a tremendous job of putting in place those checks to make sure that there isn't rampant fraud. What we do find is that there's very little fraud, and it's almost always unintentional, parents whose children have gone away to college, they will call them and say, hey, I will fill out your ballot for you, or a spouse who fills out the ballot for their husband or wife.

    And we can tell when the signatures don't match, and we call them, and let them know that is a felony, and that that vote does not count, and they will have to resubmit that ballot.

    So, we take painstaking procedures and efforts to make sure that there is no fraud. And we have not seen rampant voter fraud.

    I will say — and this is important — that every type of election, it doesn't matter, any way you do it, there is the opportunity for fraud there. We have had fraud in our country since we were first a country.

    So — but vote by mail is the opportunities are different, but we don't see them as any greater.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, given that record of success that you're describing, do you worry that the president's rhetoric is going to put a stain on this election, that it will encourage people not to vote, that some people might go and risk contacting the virus by going to vote in person, or that they might not trust the results?

    Do you worry about him poisoning the atmosphere around this election?

  • Spencer Cox:

    Well, one of the things that is unique about our form of government here is that elections really are done at the state level, and really at the local level, at the county level.

    So, even in a presidential election, we're having thousands of county elections that are run by county clerks. And my hope is that people have a trust in their local governments to run these elections correctly. They have been doing it for years. We take great pride, as election officials, in making it do — making sure we do it the right way.

    I certainly have a concern with the last piece of that. And that is anything that would call into doubt, after an election happens, the validity of that election. This is the foundation of our nation, of our constitutional republic, this democratic republic that has for — for 240 years, we have been doing this.

    And so I do worry. And I think it is incumbent on all of us that run elections to make sure that we're transparent in the way that we do things, so that people have full trust in the election and in the results of that election.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox of Utah, thank you very much for your time.

  • Spencer Cox:

    Thank you.

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