Official U.S. Postal Service mailboxes being removed. High-speed mail sorting machines being taken out of service. Reduced hours for postal workers across the country.
As Election Day nears, lawmakers are perplexed and troubled by recent changes made by the U.S. Postal Service. The new postmaster general has explained that the changes are an attempt to make the organization more efficient and financially stable. But some Democrats say it's an example of a president, long hostile to mail-in voting, trying to make it more difficult for Americans to vote.
Looming over all of this is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which is threatening to upend the election as Americans who worry about being exposed to COVID-19 at polling places opt to cast ballots through the mail. The Postal Service has warned states it might not be able to deliver mail-in ballots in time to be counted.
President Trump said this week that he opposes additional funding for the postal service because that could make mail-in voting easier. He later attempted to clarify that he was mainly concerned about potential voter fraud, but that did little to assuage Trump's critics, who have long argued that Trump is trying to "suppress the vote."
As part of their proposed coronavirus relief package, congressional Democrats have for the last few months sought $25 billion in additional funding for the Postal Service. Republicans are reportedly willing to provide additional funding for USPS, but the two sides are still far apart.
"The President, his cronies and Republicans in Congress continue to wage their all-out assault on the Postal Service and its role in ensuring the integrity of the 2020 election," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a joint statement Friday. "The President made plain that he will manipulate the operations of the Post Office to deny eligible voters the ballot in pursuit of his own re-election. The President's own words confirm: he needs to cheat to win."
On Saturday, Trump blamed Democrats for the troubles faced by the Postal Service. "They aren't approving funding" for the Postal Service or for universal mail-in voting, he said at a press conference Saturday.
In an interview this week, former President Barack Obama charged that Trump and Republican lawmakers were trying to undermine the election — and in the process hurting people who depend on the Postal Service to receive government benefits and prescription drugs.
"What are Republicans doing where you are so scared of people voting that you are now willing to undermine what is part of the basic infrastructure of American life?" Obama told his former campaign manager David Plouffe on the Campaign HQ podcast.
"I mean, it'd be the equivalent of, 'We're not going to repair highways because people might drive to the polling places,' " Obama added, " 'so we'll just let massive sinkholes in the middle of the interstate linger, because we're worried that folks might use those roads to vote.' "
Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, told All Things Considered that the iconic blue USPS mailboxes were being removed throughout his state. "I don't get it," Tester told NPR's Ari Shapiro on Friday. "The Postal Service is important in all parts of this country, but in rural America it's critically important whether you're talking Social Security checks or whether you're talking prescription drugs or parts for the farm or being able to vote."
A USPS spokesperson told The Washington Post that mailboxes are routinely relocated to areas that get more traffic. "When a collection box consistently receives very small amounts of mail for months on end, it costs the Postal Service money in fuel and work hours for letter carriers to drive to the mailbox and collect the mail," Kimberly Frum said. "Removing the box is simply good business sense in that respect. It is important to note that anyone with a residential or business mailbox can use it as a vehicle to send outgoing mail."
Another spokesperson told reporters Friday that the postal service would stop removing mailboxes until after the election. Spokesman Rod Spurgeon told CNN removal would be halted in 16 states and parts of two others; he told NBC News that "we are not going to be removing any boxes" across the country. "After the election, we're going to take a look at operations and see what we need and don't need."
But it's not just removed mailboxes that are causing concern. NBC News reported Friday that the Postal Service planned to remove 671 high-volume mail processing machines across the country. USPS told NBC News the changes were "normal business adjustments." Another spokesperson told KSHB Kansas City the Postal Service is "retiring older, out of date equipment so that we can expand our newer sorting equipment."
Letters sent out by USPS in late July warned officials in almost every state in the country that mail-in voting could be jeopardized as the Postal Service might not be able to deliver the mail by state election deadlines. "Certain state-law requirements and deadlines appear to be incompatible with the Postal Service's delivery standards," Thomas Marshall, USPS general counsel, wrote in letters to dozens of state elections officials.
"To the extent that the mail is used to transmit ballots to and from voters, there is a significant risk that, at least in certain circumstances, ballots may be requested in a manner that is consistent with your election rules and returned promptly, and yet not be returned in time to be counted," Marshall wrote.
More than a week ago, a bipartisan group of election officials from across the country asked the new postmaster general for a meeting to discuss their mail-in ballot concerns. A spokeswoman for the National Association of Secretaries of State told NPR that as of Saturday afternoon, they haven't received an official response back from the postmaster.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy formerly ran a logistics company and has donated millions of dollars to Republican candidates, including Trump. When he took the reins in mid-June, managers told postal workers to expect changes in the way they operate. For example, overtime would be eliminated, and any late-arriving mail would be delivered the next day. The changes, he said, would help create "a viable operating model" for the cash-strapped agency. The changes were met with concern among some postal workers.
Democrats in Congress plan to introduce legislation to "roll back these so-called operational efficiencies," Rep. Gerry Connolly, chair of the House Government Operations subcommittee, told All Things Considered Saturday. "We're going to work with the men and women who work for the Postal Service to ensure that they will continue as they always have in the past to make mail-in ballots a priority despite what Mr. DeJoy and President Trump want to do with the Postal Service."
Connolly criticized DeJoy for not consulting with Congress before implementing the changes. Connolly has called on the inspector general to investigate.
The USPS inspector general's office told NPR it is investigating reports of service disruptions, but declined to give details. "We are in receipt of a congressional request and are conducting a body of work to address the concerns raised," the office said in an emailed statement. "We cannot comment on details of ongoing work."
The National Association of Letter Carriers, a union representing almost 300,000 current and former postal workers, this week endorsed Joe Biden for president. "While postal employees are on the front lines providing essential services to the public every day, the current administration refuses to provide the necessary financial relief that would strengthen the agency during this pandemic," NALC President Fredric Rolando said. "The Postal Service must not be allowed to fail."