A day later, though, confusion persisted: It’s unclear whether Americans actually would receive their ballots on time, or if they’d be able to return them easily. Nor was it clear whether DeJoy would promptly restore the sorting machines he had ordered removed from some postal facilities nationwide, or if the changes he has made across the agency under the watch of President Trump would introduce delays into one of the most consequential elections in U.S. history.
The uncertainty and distrust only emboldened lawmakers on Capitol Hill, as they prepared to grill DeJoy and Robert M. Duncan, the chairman of the board of governors that oversees USPS, at a series of hearings set to begin Friday. On Wednesday, roughly 90 House Democrats called on the board, which selected DeJoy, to remove him from his post. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) publicly blasted the postmaster general after a private call with him, lamenting that his new pause would not “reverse damage already wreaked” on the country.
“The Postal Service is Election Central during the pandemic, and Democrats will not allow the President to force Americans to choose between their health and their vote,” Pelosi said in a statement.
David Partenheimer, a spokesman for USPS, stressed in a statement Wednesday the agency has not changed its rules for election mail and intends “to fulfill our role in the electoral process by doing everything we can.”
The fierce blowback Wednesday underscored the political maelstrom now facing USPS, once a venerated arm of the U.S. government, under DeJoy, a former logistics executive who became one of the Republican Party’s top donors. Since assuming the position earlier this year, DeJoy has sought to remake broad swaths of the agency out of concern for its future finances, fearing that a drop in mail volume is destined to leave the mail service insolvent. But his tactics have carried immediate, vast consequences, slowing down mail processing and delivery nationwide.
Some seniors, veterans and patients, for example, have had a hard time obtaining their mail-order medicine promptly. Postal workers, meanwhile, have griped about severe reductions in staffing as well as overtime pay that have cut deeply into their own finances — and left them unable to deliver an entire day’s worth of mail without disruption
The delays have raised the specter of major headaches entering the 2020 election, as millions of Americans opt for mail-in ballots over their local polling places at a time when the deadly coronavirus is sweeping the country. Critics see political motivations in DeJoy’s efforts, citing a slew of recent comments from Trump, who continues to claim without evidence that mail-in voting is a vector for massive fraud.
“This is all about suppressing the vote,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said.
On Wednesday, top representatives from postal workers nationwide said they had seen little to no change since DeJoy pumped the brakes on his plan to remake the USPS. They couldn’t tell whether machines and other equipment might soon be restored or how, exactly, they would now be able to receive overtime.
“While we take the [postmaster general] at his word, the industry would like to know whether ‘suspension’ means ‘rollback’ or ‘freeze in place,‘” said Art Sackler, a longtime lobbyist for mailers, postal shippers and suppliers.
The uncertainty also frustrated election experts, who feared it could affect vote counting or perhaps deter people from voting by mail in the first place. They pointed to the USPS’s recent warnings to state election officials that last-minute ballots and those mailed out in bulk — a standard practice every cycle — may not arrive in voters’ mailboxes on time.
All completed ballots sent to boards of election travel as first-class mail. But unfilled ballots going from local officials to voters are more complicated. Some localities send them first-class, which costs 55 cents per item and takes two and five days to arrive. But many others have long sent ballots as third-class or the “bulk rate” of 20 cents an item with a delivery time of three to 10 days. Historically, postal workers have treated ballots with third-class postage as though they were first-class items.
In recent days, the Postal Service has refused to clarify at the national level whether those norms will be respected in the November election, and letters it sent in July — which warned 46 states that their requirements and deadlines for voters were “incongruous” with mail service — raised concerns that they won’t.
Wendy R. Weiser, the vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice, said the agency’s statements so far could have the effect of “vote suppression.”
“Either they are going to lead to bad outcomes in terms of mail delivery . . . or they’re going to create distrust in the timeliness of mail delivery that’s unwarranted, that will cause people to avoid mail voting,” she said.
DeJoy offered few new guarantees about ballot delivery. Instead, he commissioned a task force to ensure “election officials and voters are well informed and fully supported by the Postal Service,” according to an agency statement. Partenheimer, the USPS spokesman, said Wednesday they have recommended state election officials use first-class mail “for years” to avoid potential delays.
“For the mail to be successfully used as part of an election, state and local election officials must understand and take into account our operational standards and recommended timelines,” he added in a statement, pointing out that USPS has “not changed our delivery standards, our rules, or our prices for election mail.”
Hoping to address what they fear could become a “glaring hole,” House Democrats included in their new $25 billion postal relief bill a requirement that USPS give first-class status to election mailings, Connolly said. Lawmakers including Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) urged Congress to take DeJoy’s commitments and “make this mandatory, not something [up] to the whims of the president and the postmaster general.”
But the fate of Democrats’ legislative gambit remains in doubt: The president said last week he was opposed to an emergency bailout for the agency, charging he did not want to facilitate widespread voting by mail in the fall. On Wednesday, the White House expressed only a limited openness for congressional Democrats’ push to give the Postal Service a cash infusion.
“We’re looking at the post office funding . . . but that must also include money for our hard-working Americans as well,” said White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany at her press briefing.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), meanwhile, stood by DeJoy and accused Democrats of “manipulating information and giving validity to a conspiracy theory.” On a private call Wednesday, most Republican members stood united in their view that they should do more — along with the White House — to try to battle back Democrats on the issue, according to people on the call who spoke on the condition anonymity to speak freely about it.
In the meantime, DeJoy’s actions have touched off a flurry of lawsuits. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed court papers late Tuesday in Maryland, accusing the USPS and the postmaster general of intentionally trying to undermine the 2020 election by disrupting mail service and the delivery of absentee ballots.
Dozens of state attorneys general, who had announced plans to sue the USPS earlier this week, said they, too, would remain vigilant. Several said they remain convinced that a court order is the only way they can ensure the Postal Service doesn’t stand in the way Americans’ right to vote.
“I took this effectively as an admission that what was happening was indefensible,” said Phil Weiser, the Democratic attorney general of Colorado, in response to DeJoy’s reversal.
Weiser, however, pointed to a lingering question: “There’s damage that’s already been done. Is that damage going to be undone?”
Amy Gardner, Rachael Bade and Erin Cox contributed to this report.