Elections officials sound alarm: AZ vote by mail may be harmed by USPS changes

By: - August 14, 2020 3:12 pm

Stacks of boxes holding mail are seen at a U.S. Post Office sorting center. Photo by Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Arizona has largely been spared controversial changes at the U.S. Postal Service that critics worry will make it harder to deliver mail-in ballots for the presidential election, but election officials are sounding the alarm over the possible ramifications in a state where the overwhelming majority of people vote early.

And the postal service is warning states, including Arizona, that it may not be able to deliver ballots and early ballot requests for the November election within the narrow timelines in state law.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy recently announced a host of changes at USPS, including the cutback of overtime hours for postal workers, prohibiting mail carriers from making extra trips to deliver mail, hiring freezes and the removal of mail sorting machines at some postal facilities. Those changes, along with the recent removal of USPS mailboxes in Montana and Oregon, has sparked concerns that the Trump administration is undermining voting by mail.

President Donald Trump fueled those concerns on Thursday when he acknowledged in an interview with Fox News that his rejection of a Democratic request for $25 million in emergency funding for USPS would hamper Democratic vote-by-mail efforts, saying, “they need that money in order to have the Post Office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” and that if the postal service doesn’t get the funding, “that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.” 

Trump later said he would be willing to sign legislation that included that funding.

Joe Cuccinotto, the president of the American Postal Workers Union’s Phoenix chapter, said Arizona has thus far been spared the cutback of overtime hours, the removal of sorting machines and other changes, which he said have only been implemented in certain areas.

“Right now, we’re keeping our fingers crossed because we’re not impacted right now. Nothing has hit us yet here,” he said.

Rod Spurgeon, a spokesman for USPS in Phoenix, said DeJoy’s changes are being implemented on a state-by-state basis. He said the postal service’s Phoenix processing center, which handles all mail for the state, can handle up to 11.5 million pieces of mail during an 8-hour shift. The center normally receives about 9 million pieces of mail per day. He said no sorting machines have been removed from the facility.

Spurgeon said the hiring freeze only affects supervisors, managers and other executive and administrative positions, and doesn’t apply to positions like mail carriers, mail handlers and clerks, which he said USPS is still hiring for in Phoenix. He said no mail that’s ready for delivery is intentionally left at postal service facilities, though Phoenix has two locations that are part of the postal service’s expedited street delivery pilot project, in which mail carriers return from their shifts and bundle any new mail for delivery the following morning, rather than that day.

Overtime hours haven’t been reduced in Phoenix, but Spurgeon said that’s largely due to the current volume of mail, which is at its lowest ebb during the summer. He acknowledged that overtime hours among USPS employees in Arizona could be scaled back later in the year.

Spurgeon said the recent changes at USPS are intended to make the agency more efficient and won’t hinder the delivery of ballots. More efficiency will result in less overtime, he said.

“I think it will actually make us better. If we’re running our machines and our people and our trucks on time, that could actually allow us to get ballots to our offices soon rather than later,” Spurgeon said.

Cuccinotto acknowledged that no overtime hours have been cut in Arizona, but said he expects that to happen in the future. He said the postal service has cut overtime in other states, regardless of whether it’s needed, and expects to see similar policies in Arizona later this year. Spurgeon said USPS only cuts overtime hours if they’re not necessary.

Nonetheless, DeJoy’s recent overhaul at USPS and Trump’s latest comments about voting by mail, a frequent target of his ire, has sparked widespread concerns about the Nov. 3 election. Nevada recently became the sixth state with universal voting by mail, in which election officials send a mail-in ballot to every registered voter. Many other states, including Arizona, have robust early voting systems.

USPS added to those concerns with a July 29 letter to Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, warning that Arizona’s deadline for requesting early ballots for the November election may be too late for the postal service to return those ballots in time to be counted. 

Thomas J. Marshall, the postal service’s general counsel, told Hobbs that Arizona’s statutory deadlines for requesting and mailing early ballots are “incongruous” with USPS timelines. Arizona is one of 46 states to receive such a letter, The Washington Post reported Friday.

About 80% of Arizona voters historically cast their ballots by mail. More than 80% of voters are on the Permanent Early Voting List, so they automatically receive ballots in the mail for all elections in which they’re eligible to vote. Anyone who isn’t on the list can still request an early ballot.

In this month’s primary election, about 94% of all voters in Maricopa County, which is home to about 60% of the state’s voters, cast their ballots by mail.

Marshall said that in order to ensure that election officials receive mail-in ballots in time to be counted, people need to request them at least 15 days before the Nov. 3 election. State law allows registered voters to request early ballots up to 11 days before an election. That means voters should request their early ballots by Oct. 19, “and preferably long before that time,” Marshall said, and not by the Oct. 23 deadline in state law. 

Marshall wrote that it takes 2-5 days for the postal service to deliver first-class mail, and that voters should abide by the timelines he recommends to account for weather problems or other unforeseen events. He recommended that election officials mail ballots to voters with the understanding that it could take up to a week to deliver them.

However, Marshall’s characterization of the time to deliver mail doesn’t match the USPS service standards for first-class mail enacted in 2015, which is 1-3 days. 

Marshall also recommended that voters mail their ballots at least a week before Nov. 3 to ensure they arrive by Election Day, which is a requirement in order for ballots to be counted in Arizona. That means voters should send back their early ballots by Oct. 27, the Tuesday before the election. Previously, the recommended deadline for putting early ballots in the mail was six days before an election.

“To be clear, the Postal Service is not purporting to definitively interpret the requirements of your state’s election laws, and also is not recommending that such laws be changed to accommodate the Postal Service’s delivery standards,” Marshall wrote in the letter. “By the same token, however, the Postal Service cannot adjust its delivery standards to accommodate the requirements of state election law.”

Spurgeon told the Mirror that the postal service’s delivery standards haven’t changed, and that the letter is to “let officials know of the delivery standards we have in place and the timeframe in which they have to send in-home ballots to voters.” He said the letters were part of the postal service’s normal outreach to states, not due to the recent changes made by DeJoy, and noted that increases in the of volume of mail as a result of early voting “presented a need to ensure the Postal Service’s recommendations were reemphasized to elections officials.”

However, Hobbs found the letter highly unusual. And former Assistant Secretary of State Lee Miller said the office never received such a letter during his time serving under Secretary of State Michele Reagan during the 2016 and 2018 election cycles.

A November 2019 audit by the USPS inspector general of election mail in the 2018 elections found that 95.6% of election mail pieces were delivered in accordance with service standards, slightly below a goal of 96%. Roughly 70% of postal service facilities that handled more than 2 million election mail pieces exceeded the goal, and averaged 98.3% on-time performance.

“This kind of communication from them is unprecedented,” Hobbs said.

Hobbs believes the letter was “a direct result of the changes that the postmaster implemented.”

The secretary of state said she hasn’t heard of any problems with the postal service not delivering ballots in time for the Aug. 4 primary election. 

Trump has repeatedly railed against voting by mail, citing false and baseless claims that early voting, especially universal mail voting, is rife with fraud and would lead to a rigged election if expanded into other states. Officials in states with all-mail voting, as well as in Arizona, where about 80 percent of voters cast their ballots by mail, say the system is secure and is not more susceptible to fraud than in-person voting.

At the same time, Trump has praised early voting in some states that don’t have universal early voting, including Florida, which is now his home state, and Arizona. During Gov. Doug Ducey’s visit to the White House last week, Ducey touted the security and effectiveness of Arizona’s early voting system to the president, and Trump told the governor that Arizona has done a good job with voting by mail.

Ducey, a Republican, doesn’t appear to share Hobbs’s concerns about the possible effects of the changes at the postal service, and during a press conference on Thursday he sidestepped questions about whether those changes were appropriate.

“My focus is on the state of Arizona, and Arizona is, if not the pioneer, a model of excellence for mail-in balloting,” Ducey said.

Ducey said he’s been outspoken about “experimentation with mail-in balloting” and “states that are putting this together at the last moment.” California made the change to all-mail voting in May, and Nevada lawmakers implemented universal voting by mail last month, leading to concerns among election officials that there may not be enough time to implement the new system. The Trump campaign has sued Nevada to block the new mail-in voting system.

Hobbs is going so far as to ask the attorney general’s office to investigate whether Trump and DeJoy are violating a state law making it a class 3 misdemeanor to knowingly delay the delivery of a ballot. In a letter to Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich on Friday, Hobbs requested that his election integrity unit investigate whether Trump and DeJoy conspired to violate that law.

“There’s no need to read between the lines here. The President explicitly admitted to an intentional effort to interfere with USPS’ ability to deliver ballots by mail,” Hobbs wrote to Brnovich. “In a state where the vast majority of voters choose to do so by mail, attempts to sabotage the USPS just months before an election are most certainly attempts to interfere with ‘the free exercise of the right of suffrage.’”

Asked whether it’s realistic for the attorney general charge the president of the United States and his postmaster general with a violation of Arizona election law, Hobbs told the Arizona Mirror, “As the chief election officer of the state, I feel like this is directly in the purview of my job to oversee elections and uphold the integrity of our elections. And it seems well within the purview of the election integrity unit that was created by the attorney general.”

“We’re asking for an investigation, and this is a perfect opportunity for the election integrity unit to help uphold the integrity of our state’s elections,” Hobbs said.

Brnovich indicated that he isn’t taking the request as seriously.

“We review every complaint, regardless of merit. Confidence in elections is the cornerstone of our democracy. I will continue to protect the integrity of our elections, even when other state officials won’t,” Brnovich said in an emailed statement.

Hobbs did not allege that Trump, DeJoy or other administration officials had actually delayed the delivery of any ballots in Arizona yet.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”