Eight states and the District of Columbia are holding primary elections next week amid the coronavirus pandemic, and voters are expected to cast their ballots by mail in record numbers.
It is likely to be a preview of what's to come in the fall, and some worry whether the U.S. Postal Service is up to the challenge.
A lot of people like the Postal Service; according to a recent Pew poll, 91% of Americans had a positive view, higher than any other branch of government. But it's an agency with some big problems.
To start, President Trump has called it a joke, demanded it raise its rates, and and made unfounded claims that mailed ballots will be "substantially fraudulent" and that mail boxes will be robbed.
That's a false assertion, says Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser to the Democracy Fund. She tells NPR that voters need options like voting by mail during this pandemic.
"For many, many people this year, it's going to be to get their ballot delivered to them by the United States Postal Service," she says. "Now, calling that into question, saying that people will be taking mail out of mailboxes — that's just not going to happen."
The Postal Service has had some issues with mail-in voting lately.
In Wisconsin last month, three tubs of ballots were discovered, never having reached voters. Earlier this month in in Ohio, hundreds of ballots that were postmarked on time were delivered too late to be counted.
But Patrick says not all the blame should fall on the Postal Service.
She notes that in Ohio, "you could request a ballot to be mailed to you on Saturday, up until noon, for Tuesday's election. Now, the mail delivery is two to five business days. So the some of the policies, some of the practices that we have in place," she says, "are really not voter-centric. They're not setting up the voters to succeed, but rather to fail."
Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote At Home Institute, says election officials should follow best practices that have been developed in some Western states, where voting by mail is a common if not the standard practice.
"There are models that exist and there's things that have been really successful," she says.
McReynolds says she's not concerned about the prospect for an increased volume of mail if more people send in their ballots.
"When you look at the overall numbers in what the post office processes on a yearly basis," she says, "adding vote by mail is just a very small fraction of the volume that they normally deal with."
The Postal Service released a letter on Friday it sent to state and local election officials, reminding them of the need to account for delivery times and suggesting they use bar codes to identify their mail-in ballots.
The Postal Service's financial woes pose another concern. The agency ran an $8.8 billion deficit last fiscal year.
Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, says the Postal Service may run out of cash by early fall without an infusion of funding from Congress — which the Trump administration opposes.
"If the post office is allowed to run out of money without relief then all postal operations become in jeopardy — and that would include the tremendous access to the ballot box and not just the ballot box, but voter information," Dimondstein says.
New faces at the top
Against this backdrop, the Postal Service is coming under new management.
Louis DeJoy, a businessman and high-dollar donor to Republicans — including the president — was named the new postmaster general. He takes office next month.
The deputy postmaster, Ronald Stroman, the agency's highest ranking African American, is also leaving next month.
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights Under Law, says she is concerned about the leadership turnover at a time when she says the Postal Service is playing such an important role for the nation.
"We're in a crisis moment in the country right now that really demands that we respond," she says, "and that we do all that we can to ensure that no voter is locked out of the ballot box because of the pandemic."
Trump's opposition to voting by mail, and the possibility of disruptions in the Postal Service raise questions about how well voting by mail will function this year.
Clarke says she believes the nation needs a functional Postal Service to ensure all Americans have access to ballots.
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