Deciphering the News About the U.S. Postal Service

Originally published September 1, 2020

Though you may have experienced shortages or delays in mail recently, you’ve probably also seen more articles about the mail than you know what to do with. From Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s recent hearings, to long-running worries about USPS funding, to delayed delivery of mailed goods, to worries about the upcoming election, there’s been no shortage of coverage about one of the country’s most beloved and undercounted government agencies. In the latest round of sparring, the House Oversight Committee announced on Monday its intention to subpoena DeJoy for withholding documents about the recent delay in mail delivery, his selection process, and his communications with President Trump.

The Factual set out this week to round up the latest on the USPS and clarify key issues using the most credible stories about the topic from across the political spectrum. Our key takeaways:

  1. DeJoy’s reforms at the USPS are meant to shore up the long-ailing agency, but his changes have led to a slowdown in mail delivery. This comes at a time when mail delivery and security are top concerns for citizens about to vote in a general election and when low-cost shipping is crucial for small businesses.
  2. Despite accusations of a plot by Trump to hinder the USPS before the election, and albeit suspicious timing, there’s not much hard evidence that the changes are likely to impact the delivery of mail-in ballots — or are intended to do so. Though industry experts and long-running mail policies make such an outcome seem highly unlikely — the prospect remains highly worrying for many Americans.

Why Are People Worried About the Mail?

Mail delivery has started to experience serious and widespread delays immediately following a series of policy changes enacted by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in July. The impacts have been felt widely across the country. Seniors and veterans have missed out on the timely delivery of medications that routinely arrive by mail — as many as 14 million Americans may not receive needed medication on time. Poultry farmers that have used the mail to deliver baby chicks since 1918 have seen chicks die by the thousands due to delays in service. Small businesses that have relied on the competitive postage rates of USPS have seen packages go late or undelivered; their business models may entirely collapse if they are forced to use private shipping methods such as UPS and FedEx.

The decline in processing time (orange line) is what is driving the delays in mail delivery. Source: USPS.

The impacts are geographically diverse as well. Across postal delivery regions where first-class mail tends to arrive on-time 90% of the time or more, there has been double-digit declines in the percentage of mail delivered on time, with sub-areas like Northern Ohio falling to just 68%. In aggregate, the national percentage of on-time delivery declined from 91% to 84%. Meanwhile, reports have emerged of mailing locations overrun with packages of rotting fruit, poultry, and other perishable products — all the product of new operational changes that seem to have reduced the USPS’s ability to deliver mail on time. DeJoy has acknowledged the delays and assumed at least some of the blame.

This downturn coincided with remarks from President Trump that expressed his distrust of mail-in ballots and preference for the postal service not to receive additional funding that would make it easier for more people to vote by mail: “They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots . . . If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.” In the context of a heated national election just weeks away in which well over a third of registered voters are expected to vote by mail, the consequences of potential politically-motivated meddling with the postal service have not been not lost on civil society or Trump’s political opponents.

“It was after DeJoy got to work that the mail delays began, according to multiple postal service-related union leaders and trade groups interviewed by Recode.” — Vox

Driving these concerns is that DeJoy appears to be a politically-motivated appointment (common in both Republican and Democratic administrations) and a large donor to the Republican Party and Trump’s campaign. The timing of Trump’s remarks with the rapid deterioration in the postal service gave rise to concern that these events were in fact connected and intentional, rather than coincidental and untargeted, and could have enormous impact on an upcoming election. Coupled with the more mundane changes to an essential service for many Americans, understanding exactly what is going on with the postal service has become of vital importance.

DeJoy’s Reforms to the USPS

DeJoy inherited an already ailing government agency burdened by shifting patterns of demand (total mail volume has declined by roughly 16% since 2010 ) and unrealistic financial burdens (USPS must pre-fund its post-retirement healthcare costs for 75 years into the future, a cost imposed on no other government agency). Covid-19 has placed further pressure on the agency. Approximately 40,000 of its 600,000 employees have been placed under quarantine since the pandemic started. A further decline in the mailing of letters has thankfully been offset by a surge in packages, an economic boost that looks likely to keep the USPS solvent into 2021.

Chronic loss-making has driven conservatives’ criticism of wasteful government spending and led to demands for privatization. Liberal perceptions have it that the agency serves as critical connective sinew that delivers essential services to places the private sector would leave behind. An experienced businessman, DeJoy began as postmaster general in June and set out to curb losses and reform the system.

Among his changes, the most notable have focused on:

  • Overtime hours and operational changes:
    Many of the mail delays experienced around the country are likely related to DeJoy’s rules about limiting overtime and additional daily trips. For a long time, on-time mail delivery has been driven in large part by long-hours and additional daily trips by mail carriers when the mail for a specific route couldn’t be carried in one trip. These limitations, along with shortened post office hours, are pretty clearly connected to mail delays across the country.
  • Mail sorting machines: These changes sound ominous, especially in the face of a glut of election-related mail, but are not particularly out of the ordinary. Given the declining trends in mail, the USPS regularly takes such machines out of service, though this year’s declines are larger than normal — equivalent to about 13% of the USPS’s total sorting capacity (USPS removed 3% in 2018 and 5% in 2019).
  • Removal of public mailboxes: Mailbox removals are also fairly normal for the postal service, given the declining trends in mail volume. Viral images of box removals, both legitimate and years-old, stoked concerns that such changes would negatively impact the forthcoming election. DeJoy testified that about 700 boxes have been removed under his tenure and that 35,000 have been removed in the last decade (roughly 3,500 a year).
  • Mail truck changes: Part of DeJoy’s changes have been to enforce strict departure times for the larger mail carrier trucks that traverse the nation. The effort, meant to keep the agency moving on schedule, has led to perverse outcomes such as these trucks traveling completely empty.

These changes have been decried publicly by Democrats (including Joe Biden), civil society organizations, and USPS employees. At least 20 states have sued DeJoy over the changes. And malicious or not, the changes have pretty clearly led to a widespread impacts on the USPS’s ability to deliver mail in a timely manner — all at a time when Americans are relying on it in several ways.

Will DeJoy’s Changes Influence the Election?

Through two testimonies, DeJoy was adamant that no further changes would be made prior to the elections and insisted that the USPS is highly confident in delivering mail-in ballots on time. Many are quick to point out that the anticipated surge in ballot-related mail is really just a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of the 471 million pieces of mail the USPS deals with daily. Additionally, USPS workers assign utmost priority to ballot-related mail, and DeJoy has indicated that they will even give ballots priority over first-class mail if needed.

“We will deploy processes and procedures that advances any election mail, in some cases ahead of first class mail.” — Postmaster DeJoy

A series of letters sent out by the USPS to 46 states prior to the election warned of the danger of ballots not being delivered on time, creating further concern for election watchers. However, the letters appear to be more of a matter of routine, impressing the importance of having voting deadlines that provide the USPS plenty of time to do their job, given past examples of sudden gluts of ballot related mail. These concerns don’t appear to be driven by DeJoy’s changes.

But these formal assurances will do little to settle the nerves of those concerned with the upcoming election. In the context of the doubt President Trump has cast on mail-in ballots and the heated nature of the election, there is little room for error. Were ballots not to arrive on time, it could have outsized impacts in battleground states and cast doubt on close results. And reports from some USPS workers suggest that issues like the recently removed sorting machines could hinder the postal service’s ability to sort the mail efficiently in the weeks to come.

The reality of mail delivery at present lies in stark contrast to DeJoy’s reassurances, even if the election is still two months away. If the USPS is struggling to deliver the mail on time right now, how can Americans be sure the delivery of ballots in a few weeks will be any different? The botched delivery of significant numbers of ballots would be hugely problematic for incumbents, challengers, and American democracy at large.

The Road Ahead for the USPS

Like so much else, the long-term trajectory of the USPS relies on the choices made in the months ahead. Democrats and Republicans alike agree that the agency is in urgent need of reform, but will likely target different routes to do so, ultimately agreeing on some middle path. For the time being, that path is likely to involve another tranche of funding to paper over the cracks for the immediate future (a $25 billion bill was passed in the House, with the support of 26 Republicans, but is not expected to pass in the Senate; President Trump has sent mixed messages about whether he would sign such a bill). Longer-term changes, such as how to deal with the USPS’s high employment costs and the battle over privatization, will likely require political breathing space and clear-sightedness that the Covid-19 pandemic seems unlikely to provide.

Recent headlines have made big waves, and the ingredients for a mail-driven election calamity are present, yet the chef — Postmaster DeJoy — is insistent that calamity is not on the menu. While the prevailing notion on the right is that this is much ado about nothing, on the left, alarm bells continue to ring. For now, voters, like the USPS, are left to muddle through.

Originally published at https://blog.thefactual.com.

I'm an adjunct fellow at CSIS, a political analyst and writer for The Factual, and an aspiring author interested in subnational authoritarianism.