The Wisconsin primary on April 7 was the first in the United States after the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the nation, leading to business and school shutdowns as people adjusted to limit in-person encounters to slow the spread of the virus.
Requests for absentee ballots, also known as mail-in ballots, shot up to 1.3 million, a 440 percent increase over the last presidential primary in April 2016, the Wisconsin Election Commission reported.
Inevitably, there were hiccups.
Three tubs of absentee ballots from 749 voters in Appleton and Oshkosh were found at the United States Postal Service's Milwaukee Processing & Distribution Center after the election. Thousands of ballots requested two weeks before the election were never delivered to voters. Almost 400 ballots mailed in by voters did not receive postmarks, forcing election officials to confer with the Postal Service to determine whether they should be counted.
The troubled Wisconsin primary prompted the Office of the Inspector General at the United States Postal Service to issue a recommendation on June 7 that the agency "develop and implement an action plan with timelines to address the potential national issues (ballot deadlines, postmarks, tracking technology, political and election mail coordinator outreach) identified in this report."
A week later, Louis DeJoy – a Greensboro, North Carolina, businessman and political fundraiser who has reportedly contributed more than $1.2 million to the Trump Victory Fund – took the helm of the agency through appointment by its Board of Governors with a very different preoccupation.
Reflecting on his first eight weeks on the job during remarks to the USPS Board of Governors on Aug. 7, DeJoy said the agency is in a "dire" financial position due in part to "a broken business model," and vowed to rein in costs and bring efficiency to the organization.
Since mid-July, congressional Democrats have been raising concerns about the Postal Service's commitment to returning mail-in ballots with mounting alarm, while observing operational changes at the agency that are resulting in clearly discernible slowdowns in service.
In a July 16 letter to DeJoy, five U.S. senators, led by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, noted that mail-in ballots cast in the Pennsylvania primary – a critical swing state in the November election – leapt from 80,000 in 2018 to more than 500,000 in 2020.
"The success of mail voting is dependent [on] a number of federal, state and local entities working in coordination," they wrote. "Election officials face the difficult challenge of planning the administration of this upcoming election – including arranging election mailings, sending ballots to voters on time, setting deadlines to mail back ballots, and coordinating with the Postal Service to meet its requirements – with increasingly strained budgets.
"If mail ballots arrive late and are uncounted, some voters may be disenfranchised," they warned.
While DeJoy has been implementing operational changes at the USPS that Democratic lawmakers fear will compromise the integrity of the balloting, President Trump has been actively undermining public confidence in mail-in balloting as a method of voting.
In late May, Trump falsely tweeted that California would send absentee ballots to "anyone in the state," including "people that aren't citizens."
"There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent," he wrote. "Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed."
And in late July, the president escalated his false and alarmist rhetoric with a tweet predicting that "2020 will be the most inaccurate and fraudulent election in history" because of mail-in voting, while making the unprecedented suggestion that the election should be delayed.
Absentee-ballot fraud has marred some elections in the past, including the 2018 contest in North Carolina's 8th Congressional District, in which the NC Board of Elections threw out the results after a political operative harvested fraudulent ballots to benefit the Republican candidate. But Richard L. Hasen, an elections expert at the University of California Irvine, told the Associated Press that fraud is "extremely rare" in the five states that already relied primarily on mail-in voting before the pandemic, including heavily Republican Utah.
A struggling system
Less than three weeks into DeJoy's tenure, postal handlers and carriers began receiving orders to curtail costs, even if it meant sacrificing prompt delivery. An internal document originally published by the Washington Post entitled "Mandatory Stand-Up Talk: All Employees – Pivoting for Our Future" instructed employees that starting July 10, extra trips and late trips would no longer be authorized.
"One aspect of these changes that may be difficult for employees is that – temporarily – we may see mail left behind on the workroom floor or docks," the document says. "We will address root causes of these delays and adjust the very next day."
Another memo first reported by the Post indicated that overtime would be prohibited.
The operational changes came at a time when the workforce at the USPS is buffeted by challenges from COVID-19. In a July 23 letter to his membership, National Postal Mail Handlers Union president Paul Hogrogian said 3,267 postal workers had tested positive for COVID-19, more than double the number from a month earlier. Out of 630,000 people employed by the USPS, 75 had perished from COVID.
"While the numbers in the Northeast and East continue to improve, the numbers in other parts of the country, especially in those jurisdictions where face covering and other social distancing policies are not strictly enforced, are worsening at a disturbing rate," Hogrogian wrote. "This means the crisis is far from over. The numbers are getting worse; they are not getting better. There is no real end in sight."
Hogrogian bluntly appraised the consequences of the changes.
"Most processing plants are already extremely understaffed," he wrote. "Eliminating or even reducing overtime can only result in increased delays in the processing and delivery of mail and packages, including critical items such as prescriptions and election materials."
The slowdown was already apparent in New Jersey by July 21, when Rep. Andy Kim, a Democrat, wrote to DeJoy: "Many of my constituents have rightly contacted my office to express frustration and concern about ongoing mail delivery delays, some of whom have not received their medications and first-class mail for more than three days."
By early August, members of the Illinois delegation informed DeJoy that they had received reports "of individuals going up to two weeks without mail delivery in some Chicago neighborhoods," and the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that some residents in the region hadn't received packages and letters in three weeks.
While the Postal Service's financial challenges are widely acknowledged – the agency ran a loss of $9 billion in fiscal year 2019, according to DeJoy – many Democrats and progressives argue that its instability was structurally mandated when the Republican-controlled Congress passed a 2006 law requiring the service to pre-fund employees' post-retirement healthcare costs 75 years into the future. The timing of DeJoy's arrival at the agency and his insistence on slashing costs to realign the organization just four months before the election hasn't been lost on Democratic lawmakers.
"While these changes in a normal year would be drastic, in a presidential election year when many states are relying heavily on absentee mail-in ballots, increases in mail delivery timing would impair the ability of ballots to be received and counted in a timely manner – an unacceptable outcome in a free and fair election," wrote Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee, along with three other House Democrats.
A power couple
Louis DeJoy and his wife, Dr. Aldona Wos, are longtime Republican Party patrons in North Carolina, with a history of largesse and a trail of politicians keen to receive their favor.
A native New Yorker, DeJoy moved his company New Breed Logistics to High Point in the 1990s, building it into an organization with 70 distribution centers and 7,000 employees before selling it to for $615 million to XPO Logistics in 2014. Befitting DeJoy's status as a nouveau riche commercial baron and the couple's budding stature as political movers, they paid $5.9 million in 2005 for a mansion originally built in 1934 for textile executive Herman Cone.
Wos was the first of the two to build a political reputation, landing a position as North Carolina finance co-chair for George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, propelling her into an ambassadorship to Estonia after he won.
The daughter of a father who served in the Polish Home Army during World War II and survived a German concentration camp, Wos maintains a strong interest in national security and serves as a trustee of the Washington-based Institute of World Politics, a graduate school for young people interested in national security and diplomacy. Her relationship with the institute provided her with the opportunity to arrange an appearance by founder John Lenczowski and former CIA Director James Woolsey at a resort in Greensboro in 2016.
Throughout the past 15 years Wos and DeJoy have hosted one high-profile visitor after another: a midterm election fundraiser featuring President Bush at their Irving Park home in 2006; an early campaign stop by then-presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani at North Carolina A&T University in 2007; a 2017 fundraiser at their home for President Trump. Following the same trajectory as she did in the Bush years, Wos went from a fundraiser to an appointment to the President's Commission on White House Fellowships in the Trump administration. In March, Trump appointed Wos ambassador to Canada, a post that is awaiting Senate confirmation.
In between Bush and Trump, Wos also got involved in North Carolina politics, co-chairing Republican Pat McCrory's campaign for governor. In 2013, he tapped her to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.
Wos' tenure at North Carolina DHHS from 2013 through 2015 bears an uncanny resemblance to the emerging contours of DeJoy's leadership at the USPS. While DeJoy told the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors on Aug. 7 that the organization suffers from a "broken business model," Wos inaugurated her tenure at DHHS in January 2013 by declaring that the state's Medicaid program was "broken." When she resigned from the post 32 months later, she took pride in noting that the Medicaid program was $130.7 million in the black.
Wos' leadership at DHHS and her husband's stewardship of the USPS both emphasize fiscal solvency over service to the public. In Wos' case, the collateral damage was substantial. In her first year at the agency, thousands of food-assistance recipients were left waiting sometimes up to 30 days for benefits because of a glitch in the online system, prompting federal officials to threaten to withdraw funding. That same year, DHHS rolled out its new NCTracks Medicaid management and billing system, and hundreds of healthcare providers found themselves unable to get paid for their services.
In her quest to reposition DHHS, Wos turned to the private sector, hiring Joe Hauck, the vice president for sales and marketing for New Breed Logistics – her husband's company – as a consultant. The $310,000 contract for 11 months of work was one among a series of contracts that prompted a federal grand jury investigation. Wos defended her hire of Hauck in a memo to state lawmakers that credited him with a plan to realize savings in payments to nonprofits, expanding the Office of the Internal Audit, and creating a plan to recruit and retain state-level employees at psychiatric hospitals to reduce the agency's dependency on temporary workers.
When Wos resigned her post, far from being displeased, Gov. McCrory famously wept, and praised her by saying she "took all the hits, took all the bullets."
Louis DeJoy's history of building a profitable transportation and logistics company and President Trump's well-documented disdain for the USPS has led to speculation that DeJoy's goal as postmaster general is to privatize the organization. At least some of Trump's derision for the USPS appears to be a byproduct of his grudge against Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon. In May, Trump insisted that the Postal Service raise its charges for shipping four to five times the current rate in exchange for a $10 billion loan from the U.S. government. Raising rates, critics of the administration point out, might have the opposite effect of punishing Amazon because it would make the Postal Service less competitive.
"The Postal Service is a joke because they're handing out packages for Amazon and other internet companies and every time they bring a package, they lose money on it," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.
Meanwhile, Wos and DeJoy's holdings raise questions about whether the new postmaster general has a conflict of interest: Wos' financial disclosure filings with the Office of Government Ethics as part of her nomination for the ambassadorship to Canada revealed that the couple holds between $30.1 million and $75.3 million in assets with Postal Service competitors or contractors, including XPO Logistics – the company that acquired New Breed – and trucking company JB Hunt, according to the Washington Post.
On Aug. 7, the same day that Sen. Elizabeth Warren and eight other lawmakers asked the Postal Service Inspector General to open an investigation into DeJoy's personal finances, the new postmaster general directly denied in remarks to his Board of Governors that he was either beholden to Trump or planning to privatize the organization.
"I was not appointed by the Governors to position the Postal Service to be privatized or to manage its decline," DeJoy said in remarks published by the Postal Service. "To the contrary, I accepted the job of postmaster general fully committed to the role of the Postal Service as an integral part of the United States government, providing all Americans with universal and open access to our unrivaled processing and delivery network."
As to Trump, DeJoy said, "While I certainly have a good relationship with the president of the United States, the notion that I would ever make decisions concerning the Postal Service at the direction of the president, or anyone else in the administration, is wholly off-base. I serve at the pleasure of the governors of the Postal Service, a group that is bipartisan by statute and that will evaluate my performance in a nonpartisan fashion."
DeJoy also denied that he was trying to sabotage the election by slowing down delivery of the mail.
"The Postal Service and I are fully committed to fulfilling our role in the electoral process," DeJoy told his board. "If policymakers choose to utilize the mail as part of their election system, we will do everything we can to deliver election mail in a timely manner consistent with our operational standards." He added that "despite any assertions to the contrary, we are not slowing down election mail or any other mail."
DeJoy's comments did little to assuage the concerns of Democratic lawmakers; if anything, his rollout of an organizational restructuring only antagonized them. As part of the restructuring, the Postal Service implemented an immediate management hiring freeze and voluntary early retirement, while consolidating management into three operating units: logistics and processing operations, retail and delivery operations, and commerce and business solutions.
Two days before the announced restructuring, DeJoy had met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Referencing the elimination of overtime and restrictions on extra mail transportation trips, Schumer and Pelosi called on DeJoy to reverse the changes.
"We believe these changes, made during the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic, now threaten the timely delivery of mail – including medicines for seniors, paychecks for workers, and absentee ballots for voters – that is essential to millions of Americans," they wrote.
Sen. Gary C. Peters of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, announced an investigation into Postal Service delays on Aug. 6. Evidence was not hard to find: On the same day, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, informed Peters by letter: "Some postal employees in Maine express concern about USPS's ability to handle the anticipated crush of mail we expect from the general election. They report that they feel personally responsible but institutionally unsupported for their role in the health of our democracy. (We can share more details confidentially with staff to protect the individuals who have come forward, or we can put investigators in direct contact with constituents.)"
On Aug. 8, the morning after the announced organizational restructuring at the Postal Service – characterized by some as a "Friday night massacre" – some Democratic lawmakers reacted with fury, calling for DeJoy's resignation or removal.
"The United States Postal Service was established by our Constitution, and this year it will play an unprecedented role in guaranteeing our right to vote," Rep. Alma Adams, D-North Carolina, said in a press release. "However, Postmaster DeJoy continues his unconstitutional sabotage of our Postal Service with complete disregard for the institution's promise of 'safe and speedy transit of the mail' and 'prompt delivery of its contents.'"
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, was even more irate. "DeJoy's secret removal of the senior officials who run the day-to-day operations at USPS lays bare his mission to centralize power, dismantle the agency and degrade service in order to thwart vote-by-mail across the nation to aid Trump's re-election efforts," DeFazio said. "This November, an historic number of citizens will vote by mail in order to protect their health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. DeJoy's nefarious collection efforts will suppress millions of mail-in ballots and threaten the voting rights of millions of Americans, setting the stage for a breach of our Constitution."
'Vote by mail is tanked'
Like DeJoy, Mark Dimondstein comes from Greensboro, where he worked as a clerk prior to his 2013 election as president of the 200,000-member American Postal Workers Union. Dimondstein told me he's not particularly concerned about the managerial reorganization at the top, and his preoccupations are elsewhere.
"What I'm focused on from last Friday is that neither the Postal Service Board of Governors nor the postmaster general advocated or asked that Congress provide the Post Office with appropriate COVID relief," Dimondstein said. He added that since the Postal Service is ordinarily funded through revenue generated from users, it would be appropriate for taxpayers to foot the bill for a one-time injection of COVID relief funding for the benefit of the American people.
The Democratic-controlled House approved $25 billion in funding for the Postal Service in June as part of the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES Act, but the White House and the House Democrats were unable to come to an agreement on a second round of COVID relief spending. Instead, on Aug. 8, President Trump signed a series of executive orders to address the COVID crisis that did not include aid to the Postal Service.
While the integrity of the election is a particular concern for Democrats, lawmakers from both parties have raised alarm that slowing down the mail undermines constituents' ability to obtain life-saving medications during the pandemic.
In an Aug. 8 letter, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, urged DeJoy "to reverse recent policies impacting delivery times and to call your attention to concerns raised by my constituents.
"Montanans from across the state have contacted me to express their alarm by these orders, including your July 10, 2020 directive to hold late mail until the next day, and the resulting delays in mail delivery," Daines wrote. "This action, if not rescinded, will negatively impact mail delivery for Montanans and unacceptably increase the risk of late prescriptions, commercial products, or bill delivery."
Rural, sparsely populated states like Montana, which tend to elect Republican representatives, have a special stake in maintaining the Postal Service.
"For many," Daines reflected, "the unforgiving climate and terrain paired with the shortage of pharmacies [in Montana] makes the continuity of USPS an existential necessity."
On July 29, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reached an agreement with DeJoy for the U.S. government to extend $10 billion in credit to the Postal Service, allowing the organization to avoid running out of cash at the end of September and to continue operating through May 2021.
DeJoy could not be reached for this story, but Philip Bogenberger, a USPS spokesperson, told us in an email that the organization's "financial condition is not going to impact our ability to process and deliver election and political mail. The Postal Service has ample capacity to adjust our nationwide processing and delivery network to meet projected election and political mail volume, including an additional volume that may result as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic."
Bogenberger's assurance came with caveat. He said the USPS "strongly recommends that election officials advise voters to request absentee ballots as soon as possible, but no later than 15 days prior to the election date – or Oct. 19 – and to mail them in at least a week before the election – or Oct. 27. He said the USPS plans to send a letter to election officials "in states that have deadlines for requesting and casting mail-in ballots that under our reading of their election laws appears to be incongruous with the Postal Service delivery standards."
In a July 7 report on the misplaced ballots in the Wisconsin primary, the USPS Office of the Inspector General warned: "States' deadlines for voters to request absentee ballots are insufficient to ensure delivery before an election." The report singled out 11 states with no deadline or deadlines within three days of the election, including Minnesota and Ohio – considered critical swing states – along with New Hampshire, North Dakota, Washington, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Montana, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming. Ten other states, including Michigan and Wisconsin – also swing states – along with Georgia, Louisiana, New Mexico, South Carolina, Alabama, Delaware, Illinois, Maine and Oregon have deadlines four to five days before the election. (North Carolina requires that absentee ballots be received by the county board of elections seven days before the election, in keeping with the Postal Service's stated delivery standards.)
In response to the lost absentee ballots that plagued the Wisconsin primary, the Inspector General determined that some of the problems were caused by actors outside of the USPS. The report found that the tubs of absentee ballots from Appleton and Oshkosh were late because a third-party mailer held on to them for one day and didn't present them to the USPS until 6 p.m. on primary election day. And the Inspector General said the Milwaukee Election Office determined there was a computer glitch on March 22, resulting in almost 2,700 requested ballots that were never sent to voters. But the Inspector General report contains no explanation for why 390 completed ballots were returned without postmarks, except to note that the Postal Service worked with the election office and determined the validity of all but 40 of them. The report went on to say that the Postal Service's official guidance states that all ballots should be postmarked by machine or hand, and the district manager for the Lakeland area plans to communicate with all employees to clarify their roles and responsibilities.
Whether errors are made by the USPS, election officials or third-party contractors, it's not hard to imagine delays could result in outright disenfranchisement – or fabricated claims by Trump and his supporters that the election is being stolen as local election offices wait weeks to retrieve lost ballots.
With COVID-19 cases on the rise again, advocates for a full and fair vote might echo the USPS' official recommendation: Put in your request for an absentee ballot and get it in the mail as early as possible. But the view from those working within the organization at the ground level is not so straightforward.
"This election is going to suck," a personnel processing specialist at the USPS human resources center told this reporter, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fear of losing their job. "Vote by mail is tanked. ... [you should] vote in person. If you are lucky to live in the city, it will be COVID-protocol controlled. Lines out the door if you can afford to take off work. I, along with many of my friends, [am] so worried. Ugh."
This story ran first in the Triad City Beat.