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How USPS policies and the pandemic could create mail-in voting ‘perfect storm’

The U.S. Postal Service is warning that it may not be able to deliver all mail-in ballots in time for them to be counted for the election. That message was communicated in letters sent to state officials around the country, and it raised the prospects of big problems in November. William Brangham reports and talks to The Washington Post’s Erin Cox about the challenges and what voters can do.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    New warnings from the U.S. Postal Service are coming to light today, suggesting that it will not be able to deliver all mail-in ballots in time to be counted for the election. Because of the pandemic, mail-in voting is expected to surge this fall.

    That message came in letters sent to state officials around the country. And it raised the prospect of even bigger problems for November.

    William Brangham has the details.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, those letters were sent to 46 states and to the District of Columbia, according to The Washington Post.

    The Postal Service told states, including battleground such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, that the timelines for sending, receiving and counting ballots wouldn't necessarily line up with what the Postal Service could actually deliver.

    There are already delays in mail delivery today. And this all comes as President Trump said yesterday that he was opposed to bailing out the Postal Service to help it handle this expected surge of mail-in ballots.

    Today, though, he said he might be open to a deal.

    Erin Cox is covering all this for The Washington Post. And she joins me now.

    Erin, this letter was sent out earlier this summer to the states, warning them, basically, that potentially millions of voters could be disenfranchised because of delays in delivering their ballots.

    Could you tell us a little bit more about what this letter said?

  • Erin Cox:

    So, this letter went to states where roughly 160 million American voters live.

    The states warned — states were warned by the Postal Service that, under their reading of election laws, there was not enough time between some of the deadlines to request a ballot and return a ballot for the Postal Service to guarantee that those ballots could be counted in time.

    And under that — under that scenario, ballots that were asked for on time, filled out on time, put in the mail on time, would ultimately be disenfranchised, would be — not be able to be counted, and those voters would be disenfranchised.

  • William Brangham:

    So, voters could follow all of the rules and still have their vote not counted.

    I mean, obviously, this puts the states in a position. I know Pennsylvania and some of them have looked at trying to change those deadlines to accommodate this delay, either making — sort of opening up the deadlines for when you could ask for or cast a ballot, or maybe delay when you have to finally deliver final election results.

    Can all the states potentially affected change their rules in time?

  • Erin Cox:

    No.

    Many of the states can't, and some of the states that we spoke to said that they don't intend to, and they have been dealing with some version of this problem with mail-in ballots for years.

    The problem is heightened dramatically, though, when you have states with as much as 10 times as many mail-in ballots as they usually have. What election officials have been saying that they are going to do in those states is an aggressive voter education campaign, telling voters, mail in your ballot early.

    We know that the deadline is coming, but get it in a week before the deadline. If you know that you are decided, send it in. They are putting out extra drop boxes, and they're trying to figure out work-arounds, so that they can still mail people ballots, and also make sure that they don't have to fully rely on the Postal Service's delayed system to get them back in time.

  • William Brangham:

    You also reported that, simultaneous to all of this, the Postal Service is decommissioning hundreds of these enormous mail sorting machines, that people have seen videos of these machines that can sort and count ballots at lightning speed — or mail at lightning speed.

    Why is that happening at the same time?

  • Erin Cox:

    So, the rationale for decommissioning those, according to the Postal Service, is that the Postal Service gets a lot more packages and boxes than flat mail, like letters and ballots, and so they need the floor space to be able to accommodate those packages, and it is inefficient to have these enormous machines that are expensive and difficult to maintain taking up space that they really need to move other packages.

    On the other hand, rank-and-file postal workers fundamentally disagree with that assessment of the system, and they filed a formal grievance. These machines represent 10 percent of the Postal Service's capacity. They can count 23 million pieces of mail in a single day.

    And taking all of those offline, a lot of the postal — rank-and-file postal worker say can sharply diminished the Postal Service's ability to quickly process mail and things like ballots.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, with those machines going offline, the delays that we know instituted in part by the new postmaster general, we know the president has been possibly threatening to not sign any COVID relief deal that would have money to help the post office accommodate this, coupled with what we have been hearing from the president, all of these falsehoods he has been making about mail-in voting, you put all of those things together.

    And I sort of hate the cliche, but it feels like this is a perfect storm that is brewing for this election.

  • Erin Cox:

    There is certainly potential for that.

    And it is now — one of the big takeaways from the letters from the Postal Service is that they are putting the onus on voters and election officials to make sure that their votes get counted. And the Postal Service, in issuing this warning, part of the motivation, as I understand it, is to warn people about this perfect storm that is gathering, and to put people on notice early, so that people can take appropriate action to avoid having tens of thousands or millions of ballots end up go uncounted.

  • William Brangham:

    So, briefly, if there are voters out there who are hearing all of this, worried about this, what can they do? Where do they go to find out how to get their ballot in their house, sent back and get it counted in time?

  • Erin Cox:

    So, this is a national issue, but elections always have been, and for the foreseeable future always will be run on a very, very local level with local volunteers and local election officials.

    And those folks have a lot of detailed information about your town, your city, your area, how to vote, how to make sure your vote gets counted, how to request a ballot, different ways you can do that. They are all working very, very hard to try to overcome these kind of perfect storm issues.

    And so, if you are concerned about getting your vote to count, get your ballot early, talk to your local election officials, and figure out a plan.

  • William Brangham:

    Erin Cox of The Washington Post, thank you very, very much.

  • Erin Cox:

    Of course. Have a great night.

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