Sabotaging the Post Office

We've removing mail sorting machines just in time for mail-in voting.

There has been speculation for a few weeks that the Trump administration was deliberately hamstringing the U.S. Postal Service to make voting by mail a fiasco. When we last checked in to the story, there was plausible deniability. The newly installed, Trump-appointed Postmaster General was indeed making changes that hampered operations. But it was at least arguable that they were driven by “efficiency” rather than malice. And Trump was on a vendetta against USPS before the pandemic hit.

But this one is harder to explain away.

Motherboard (“The Post Office Is Deactivating Mail Sorting Machines Ahead of the Election“):

The United States Postal Service is removing mail sorting machines from facilities around the country without any official explanation or reason given, Motherboard has learned through interviews with postal workers and union officials. In many cases, these are the same machines that would be tasked with sorting ballots, calling into question promises made by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy that the USPS has “ample capacity” to handle the predicted surge in mail-in ballots.

Motherboard identified 19 mail sorting machines from five processing facilities across the U.S. that either have already been removed or are scheduled to be in the near future. But the Postal Service operates hundreds of distribution facilities around the country, so it is not clear precisely how many machines are getting removed and for what purpose.

Even to local union officials, USPS has not announced any policy, explained why they are doing this, what will happen to the machines and the workers who use them. Nor has management provided a rationale for dismantling and removing the machines from the facility rather than merely not operating them when they’re not needed.

[…]

The postal workers Motherboard spoke to said having machines removed, replaced, or modified is nothing new, but this time it seems to be more widespread, include a larger number of machines at their respective facility, and potentially impacts the facility’s ability to process large numbers of mail, including ballots, in a short time span.

The proffered explanation doesn’t pass the smell test:

After publication, USPS spokesperson David Partenheimer told Motherboard, “The Postal Service routinely moves equipment around its network as necessary to match changing mail and package volumes. Package volume is up, but mail volume continues to decline. Adapting our processing infrastructure to the current volumes will ensure more efficient, cost effective operations and better service for our customers.”

Even if we ignore everything we know about Trump and assume good intention, why would removing sorting equipment right now make any sense? If business projections have mail volume down permanently, and not just as a function of the pandemic, I can understand phasing it out. But not when you expect a massive increase in mail volume in the next few weeks!

While the consequences of this new policy are mostly unclear for now, it neatly fits with the sudden, opaque, and drastic changes made by DeJoy, a longtime Republican fundraiser and Trump donor, in the less than two months he’s been postmaster general. Like his other changes, including the curtailing of overtime resulting in the widespread mail delays and sudden reorganization of the entire USPS, it is possible to see some semblance of corporate logic while second-guessing the decision to make drastic changes on the eve of the presidential election in which the USPS will play a critical role.

While I view mail delivery as an essential role of government—indeed, one of the few specified in the Constitution—I can understand the desire to make it more cost-effective. Reducing overtime, Saturday delivery, and the like may well be advisable.

But, again, not in the immediate run-up to an election we know is going to be conducted mostly by mail. And, certainly, not in an atmosphere where doing so is going to look for all the world like an attempt to steal said election.

Now, the good news is that, even if this is happening all across the country, postal workers think they’ll still be able to handle to increased volume with the remaining capacity. But, again, this is just insane from the standpoint of good governance and the appearance of free and fair elections.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jon says:

    Of course it is an intentional attempt to mess up the USPS generally and mail-in voting specifically. Trump admitted it.

    23
  2. CSK says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Trump just say (and tweet) that the whole point of cutting off the money to the USPS was to sabotage mail-in voting?

    I’ve said it before, but either the man is losing his grip on reality far quicker than we suspect, or he’s resigned to losing in November and has decided he can say or tweet any demented/racist thing he likes.

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  3. CSK says:

    Cult45 is pretending to be blithely unaware that this is happening. Do they not know that this will screw up the delivery of their checks and medicines?

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  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    it is possible to see some semblance of corporate logic

    I can understand the desire to make it more cost-effective. Reducing overtime, Saturday delivery, and the like may well be advisable.

    The postal service is not a business*, it’s job is not to generate profits, it is to dependably deliver the mail as quickly and accurately as possible, so that the rest of the country can function as efficiently as possible. If that means spending extra money so that time critical materials get where they need to be overnight, that is what they should do. If that means extra sorting machines so that first class mail can cross the country and be delivered in 3 days or less, so be it. If that means paying overtime to mail carriers delivering packages at Xmas, do it.

    Efficiency is good, but that should not be the guiding principle of govt, which exists to serve.

    * yes I know, it’s a sort of weird quasi governmental organization

    24
  5. Michael Cain says:

    Not a constitutional scholar, but I always read the Postal Clause as being permissive: Congress may provide post offices and post roads, but is not mandated to do so. Just as, a few sections earlier, Congress is empowered to borrow, but is not required to do so. I know there were a bunch of Supreme Court cases in the early days working out that they could actually operate a service, rather than just providing the buildings and roads that private parties would need to operate a service/services. One I (think I) recall involved transporting mail by ship from South Carolina to Massachusetts, since that involved neither post offices or post roads.

  6. mattbernius says:

    The lack of any real public outrage or discussion of this among Republicans and Conservatives is example number bazillion that the party has come to the conclusion that it can only maintain national power through voter suppression.

    And that they are willing to risk the lives and livelyhood of their base in the process (lots of seniors and businesses rely on mail for things like billing, paying bills, and receiving benefits checks and medication).

    14
  7. Bob@Youngstown says:

    On C-Span’s Washington Journal this morning, their guest was a journalist from the Washington Journal (paper), he averred that it is well know that the USPS loses mail, at significant percentages.

    Is that well known?
    I can only rely on my own experience as a frequent user of USPS to get and send first class mail over the years. From my own experience, in at least the last twenty years, I have never failed to get a credit card billing, nor have any of my USPS sent payments not arrived at their destination. Same is true for mortgage billings.payments, utility billings and payments, IRS notices and payments, and…. well you get the idea.

    If there was some significant level of USPS losing first class mail, I would have thought I might have experience at least one instance – but no.

    So, does anyone know of a reliable source that can support the assertion that the USPS loses mail at some significant rate?

    17
  8. mattbernius says:

    And, certainly, not in an atmosphere where doing so is going to look for all the world like an attempt to steal said election.

    Again, if most of the major actions of the past few months were occurring in another country, there would be discussions if we needed to invade or intervene to protect democracy.*

    * – Non-interventionist note: I don’t think that would be a good choice or particularly good foreign policy.

    6
  9. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Bob@Youngstown:

    In my younger days, I worked at a company that did large mailings (50k+), and learned quite a bit about the USPS. They lose very little mail. Most of what fails to be delivered is either damaged, or (more often) poorly or improperly addressed. But even then, they have “lost letter” departments that will try to figure it out and deliver it.

    There’s no actual counting of what’s lost (how do you count what’s not there?) but anecdotal evidence from lots of shippers and mailers says the same thing: The USPS delivers.

    11
  10. Scott F. says:

    Even if we ignore everything we know about Trump and assume good intention…

    Thanks for this, James. It made me laugh out loud to see “Trump” and “good intention” in the same sentence.

    3
  11. Scott F. says:

    @mattbernius: Trump is testing his theory that he could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and his people would still love him. The cowards of the Republican Party are fairly certain he’d be willing to shoot them if it meant he could continue to pretend to himself he is the greatest President ever.

    5
  12. Barry says:

    @Bob@Youngstown: “So, does anyone know of a reliable source that can support the assertion that the USPS loses mail at some significant rate?”

    In my experience, not enough that I can recall a case.

    1
  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Bob@Youngstown: On C-Span’s Washington Journal this morning, their guest was a journalist from the Washington Journal (paper), he averred that it is well know that the USPS loses mail, at significant percentages.

    He’s full of shit. What the postal service does every day in every corner of our country is way beyond amazing and just short of a miracle. That said, I don’t have a source. Just long ago personal experience in the freight forwarding business and continued experience with their excellence.

    Of course, that isn’t true at this particular point in time.

    5
  14. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    And, certainly, not in an atmosphere where doing so is going to look for all the world like an attempt to steal said election.

    Um…he admitted it.

    “They want $25 billion for the post office. Now, they need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. Now, in the meantime, they aren’t getting there. But 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.”

    6
  15. Matt says:

    @Bob@Youngstown:

    So, does anyone know of a reliable source that can support the assertion that the USPS loses mail at some significant rate?

    None that I can find of. My anecdotal experience is that the only time I’ve had mail “lost” is when someone was stealing my mail…

    Although I’ve seen people claim the check was in the mail and then weeks later swear the check must of been lost in the mail….

    1
  16. inhumans99 says:

    Thank you James for this post. This is going to become the story of the 2020 Election. The GOP are literally trying to steal an election, this is so far beyond not funny I do not know where to begin. This is genuinely dangerous ground that Trump is starting to tread on.

    ETA: Folks, I am a CA liberal but I also want to note that I do not wear a tinfoil hat…so if folks look at my post and think inhumans99 is one of those tin hat wearing critters that is honestly not who I am. In fact, those Conservatives/Libertarians who appreciate that image of the snake saying do not tread on me…well, I am starting to feel like that is what the White House wants to do to all of us and it is ticking me off a bit.

    7
  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Matt: My rural carrier recently spent several afternoons picking up stolen mail from his route that had been thrown out the window along the side of the road. He then sorted it again, put it in a special envelope with a note explaining that it had been stolen and then dumped and the recipients should take measures regarding any stuff they were expecting that might not have been dumped.

    He told me this and then warned me that the thieves were working themselves our way, so we should grab our mail as early in the day as possible.

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  18. SC_Birdflyte says:

    This alone gives the lie to the myth that “What we really need is a businessman to run things.” Biden and Harris need to hammer this one hard.

    7
  19. Michael Cain says:

    From time to time you see a case of a carrier who has not been delivering all of the mail, letting it pile up in their garage, apartment, or in one case this year, a rented storage unit. Typically the undelivered mail is a relative handful of first class items and magazines, and thousands or tens of thousands of advertisements. Normal practice is the magazines and first class are delivered, albeit late. Advertising is discarded since almost all of it is out of date.

    2
  20. CSK says:

    @SC_Birdflyte:
    In a way, it’s unfair to business people to categorize Trump as one of them. He really isn’t a businessman, given that he’s never run an honest, profitable business. He bought the wildly successful Eastern Airlines shuttle and ran it into the ground in three years. His mortgage company, his board game, his steaks, his bottled water, his ale, his magazine…all major league flopperoos.

    I mean ffs…this is a guy who couldn’t even peddle vodka or promote gambling profitably, something any double digit I.Q. gangster could make a killing doing.

    9
  21. @Michael Cain: I do remebmer Newman doing that in Seinfeld but beyond that…

    3
  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: I thought SC was referring to Louis DeJoy the new Postmaster General.

  23. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I have read of a couple such cases, but it is really really rare. I think something like 2 or 3 cases in the past decade or more.

    ETA: here’s one such story in the NYT: ‘Overwhelmed’ Postal Carrier Hoarded 17,000 Pieces of Mail, Officials Say

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/21/nyregion/undelivered-mail-hoarded.html

    2
  24. Teve says:

    I said recently that years ago I wondered what happened to the German people that they could allow that to occur, and lately I realized there was nothing especially depraved about the German people. 30% of these US idiots would happily walk down that path. I don’t know if America is going to survive the conservative media bubble, and i wonder if even making it to the West Coast will protect me.

    2
  25. Jen says:

    @Bob@Youngstown: I have to believe that it’s likely a low overall percentage. When there is a pattern of complaints, there’s usually a reason, and it’s typically tracked down, like this one.

    My parents live in a smaller town outside of Phoenix, and their post office is *horrible*–but the mail is delayed. Eventually, it makes its way to the homes, but I’ve sent birthday cards that arrive weeks later for no apparent reason (meaning, it’s not like the birthdays are around holidays, etc.)

    ETA: huh, looks like a few cases in the last couple of years. Still, there’s almost always a pattern of complaints.

  26. CSK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    On re-reading the comment, I see you’re right. But in a larger sense, I’m right, too. Trump is ultimately responsible.

    I’m blinded by my own hatred of Trump.

    1
  27. Grewgills says:

    I haven’t had any mail lost or delayed for a decade until this past month. I sent an Express mail package with guaranteed delivery time that is now over a week late.

  28. An Interested Party says:

    @inhumans99: The fact that more people aren’t really pissed off about this tells you how fucked up we are as a country…

    This alone gives the lie to the myth that “What we really need is a businessman to run things.”

    Well hell, we found that out when Bush Jr. got into the White House…

    3
  29. Joe says:

    @Jon:
    What is this “universal mail in voting” of which he speaks? I keep seeing this term creep into the conversation, but I am not aware of any states that are moving to mail-in voting as a universal approach this year. I am also of the growing opinion that those who can safely vote in person – whether early or on Election Day – should make the effort to do so and reduce this issue.

    2
  30. Michael Cain says:

    What is this “universal mail in voting” of which he speaks?

    Earlier this year Kamala Harris introduced a bill in the Senate which would require every state in the US to maintain, at minimum, a permanent no-excuse absentee ballot list (eg, what AZ and CA do). States would be allowed but not required to choose to use their list of registered voters and send everyone a ballot by mail (CO, HI, OR, UT, and WA so far). States would be required to offer early in-person voting as well so it’s not actually mandated vote by mail. OTOH, based on Colorado’s experience with the expenses, there’s not going to be hundreds/thousands of election day precinct sites.

    1
  31. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: It’s rare, but it happens. Like people keeping big cats in their apartments in NYC.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ming_of_Harlem

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/21/nyregion/undelivered-mail-hoarded.html

  32. mattbernius says:

    “USPS says Pennsylvania mail ballots may not be delivered on time, and state warns of ‘overwhelming’ risk to voters”

    The United States Postal Service warned Pennsylvania that mail ballots may not be delivered on time to be counted because the state’s deadlines are too tight for its “delivery standards,” casting fresh doubt on Pennsylvania’s ability to conduct much of the 2020 election by mail.

    The warning came in a July 29 letter from Thomas J. Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president for the Postal Service, to Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, whose department oversees elections. That letter was made public for the first time late Thursday in a filing the Pennsylvania Department of State submitted to the state Supreme Court, in which it asked the court to order that mail ballots be counted as long as they are received up to three days after the Nov. 3 election.

    Source: https://www.inquirer.com/politics/election/pennsylvania-mail-voting-deadlines-post-office-lawsuit-20200813.html

    Given the swing State aspect of PA, when is ok to talk about a politician party openly trying to steal the election?

    Asking for a friend who is really close to breaking the glass on the “outright cartoonishly evil” labeling.

    And somewhere Susan Collins furoughs her brow.

    3
  33. Michael Cain says:

    because the state’s deadlines are too tight for its “delivery standards,”

    It’s worth noting that there are a bunch of eastern/midwestern/southern states that still say you’re supposed to be able to request an absentee ballot on Friday before election day and have the ballot get out and back by mail before the cutoff time on Tuesday. That hasn’t been realistic for a very long time.

    When I worked for the legislative staff in my state, one of our jobs was to notice places where the statutes were no long realistic, and pass those on to the joint committee that was responsible for cleaning things up.

    1
  34. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @mattbernius:

    asked the court to order that mail ballots be counted as long as they are received up to three days after the Nov. 3 election.

    I’m hoping that the mail ballots being referred to are domestic absentee ballots, as contrasted with overseas ballots which have a 10 day post election deadline.

    I’m of the opinion that PA, like several other states have put themselves in jeopardy because of their rules/laws regarding when the processing of absentee ballots can start. The first step of processing absentee ballots is opening up the envelope that the postoffice delivers and begin to verify that the voter is authentically permitted to vote. Normally this is a verification/authentication envelope that is sealed with the actual ballot inside. This step is the most labor intensive portion of the process. Pennsylvania just begins this authentication process at 7am on election day, where as Ohio (as an example) can begin this authentication process anytime prior to election, and as contrasted with FL that begins the process 22 days before election day.

    Once the ballot envelope has be authenticated, ballots can be extracted from that envelope. PA. waits till election day to open all these envelopes, as contrasted with OH, that has already extracted the ballots and scanned the ballots as they have arrived before election day, run the ballots through vote counters that do everything BUT add up (tally) the number of votes for each candidate/office.

    Yes, everybody would like to see the election results (tallies) ASAP, but PA’s rules, by delaying the labor to process absentee ballots till the “last day” has practically guaranteed that tallies will be delayed.

    I applaud the SOS for their appeal to allow ballots to be accepted (if postmarked before Election day) if they are received by the BOEs prior to the 4th day post election. But that should not prevent the BOEs from reporting the tallies prior to the 10th day post-election day. And that tally timelime would be sooo much easier if the absentee ballots were processed earlier – as they are recieved.

    ETA: assuming that PA law has not been amended in the past 40 days

    2
  35. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Michael Cain:
    For the record the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot in PA is Oct 27 2020, applications will not be accepted after that date. Still really tight, as there are two more mailings yet to be done before election day.

  36. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I don’t know what background DeJoy has. I was thinking of Trump, but it could go for the new Postmaster General as well.

  37. de stijl says:

    Why does the Surgeon General get to wear a fancy-pants pseudo military suit, but the Postmaster General does not? Nor the Attorney General?

    Barr would look perfect in Captain Queeg puffery.