Will mail-in voting decide America’s next president?
Many states are planning on drastically different elections this year and mail-in ballots could be a big game changer.
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A U.S. Postal worker rolled through downtown Columbus, Ohio in late May, stopping to hoist iconic blue mailboxes onto a flatbed truck. Protests after George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer had taken a destructive turn the night before.
In front of the offices of the Columbus Dispatch, part of the USA TODAY Network, a reporter asked the worker why he was taking the boxes. Because of the riots, he told her. In all, more than 30 mailboxes disappeared from the city’s streets that day.
They didn’t return until August 21, the same day Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testified to a Senate committee about postal cuts.
In the meantime, across the United States, missing mailboxes had become a political hot button.
The blue boxes have been disappearing for decades. But between a pandemic, a presidential election, and a president who is fanning the flames of suspicion that he’s sabotaging the Postal Service to suppress mail-in voting, Americans are now paying close attention to every cut the post office makes.
On average, from 2010 through 2019, the Postal Service reports it removed 3,258 drop boxes per year.
The Postal Service did not respond to USA TODAY’s request for records of boxes removed this year. Comparing a list of mail collection boxes the Postal Service released in September 2019 to those listed on the agency’s website this month showed a reduction of more than 4,200.
Reporters across the USA TODAY Network checked on 271 of those boxes in 20 states and confirmed that 186 were not there. The others had not been removed.
Reporters found boxes had been removed on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, Broadway in New York City and on 10 Mile Road in Southfield, Michigan. In Ashland, Massachusetts, four boxes in the post office went offline when the building closed after mold was discovered in the basement. It was supposed to reopen this spring, but still hasn’t.
In Eugene, Oregon, at least 21 are gone, culled from locations with multiple boxes that now have one or two. Rusty bolts embedded in the concrete are still visible. The Postal Service removed boxes during construction projects in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.
Even if this year’s removals track with historical averages, 2020 has been anything but a normal year. Some voting rights experts question why the Postal Service would remove any mailbox during a pandemic when more voters than ever are expected to cast ballots by mail.
“Why now? Why not wait until after the election?” said Bernard Fraga, associate professor of political science at Emory University.
“It’s a lifeline for a lot of people,” said Brett Max Kaufman, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Postal Service warns states: Some absentee, mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted
Seniors, those with disabilities and limited transportation often rely on collection boxes in their neighborhood for outgoing mail. They will grapple with the tough choice of voting in-person and risking illness or trying to navigate voting by mail, according to Capri Cafaro, a former Democratic member of the Ohio Senate who now teaches politics at American University.
“The removing of mailboxes and sorting machines has a disproportionate impact on underserved communities, where the post office is really relied upon,” she said.
In Upper Manhattan, the Postal Service removed a box for construction at Cabrini Boulevard and 181st Street. Now, the owner of a salon near the intersection said, seniors in a nearby building have to walk uphill several blocks to the nearest mailbox.
States are expanding voting access in different ways, including offering ballot drop boxes, allowing people to drop-off ballots in person, and in some cases extending the deadline for returning ballots.
State-by-state guide: How to vote by mail in the 2020 election
Fears about voter suppression centered on mailboxes in mid-August when at least one viral tweet purported to show a pile of them at a dump. The photo was debunked, but it was shared more than 80,000 times and coincided with real news reports of boxes being removed.
The combination created a social-media frenzy with #USPS as a top trending hashtag for several days along with #SaveTheUSPS and #USPSProtests.
Public concerns reached the highest levels of government. The House approved legislation Aug. 22 to allocate $25 billion to the Postal Service and ban operational cuts until after the election – a move the agency already said would happen. More than two dozen Republicans joined Democrats to vote for the measure, which isn’t expected to get a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Trump repeatedly said he opposes federal funding for the post office, which is losing money, and continues to make false claims about fraud related to mail-in voting.
Postmaster General DeJoy – a major donor to Trump’s campaign with large financial interests in the Postal Service’s private competitors – told a Senate committee that the safe and timely delivery of election mail was his “sacred duty.” But he also said the Postal Service will not re-install mailboxes and mail sorters that it has already removed.
DeJoy urges voters to return ballots early
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is urging voters to request mail-in ballots early. In written testimony provided to a House panel, he recommended requesting ballots at least 15 days before the Nov. 3 election to ensure they mail it back on time. (Aug. 24)
As the political fighting intensified, Nathan Story, who runs a website connecting users to the nearest mailbox or post office, started hearing from people concerned about pre-election mailbox removals. So, he compared an official mailbox location list he’d requested from the Postal Service last year to information from the agency’s website this month. It’s the same analysis USA TODAY conducted after Story shared the 2019 list he’d obtained.
He expected to find more missing mailboxes.
“When I crunched the numbers,” he said, “I felt a lot less concerned about it.”
A history of cuts
Postal officials have removed collection boxes to cut costs since the 1970s. Still, through at least the late 1990s, there were years the Postal Service had added as many as 70,000 boxes, agency records show.
The number of boxes peaked in 1973 at 386,000. A steep plunge began after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax incidents that followed in 2001. Security concerns prompted the removal of more than 20,000 boxes in 2002.
“In these instances, if municipal, state, or other responsible officials informed local postal officials that they wanted boxes removed from in front of prominent buildings or other suspected potential targets, the Postal Service complied with those requests,” the Postal Service wrote in answer to a legal complaint about box removals in 2002.
At the end of 2002 there were 304,849 boxes in use. By 2006 that number was 211,581 and in 2009 another purge of more than 24,000 boxes brought the total down to about 182,000, Postal Service reports show.
New boxes do go in each year, as some cities grow. But the net loss has averaged more than 3,000 each year over the past decade. At the end of fiscal year 2019, the number stood at 142,300.
Under Postal Service policy, any box that receives fewer than 25 pieces of mail per day is eligible to be removed. The local area postmaster must approve the removal and must post a sign on the box for 30 days with an address and phone number so the public can make comments.
“Boxes adjacent to senior citizen housing, municipal and judicial buildings, and other public facilities are examples of the types of boxes that may be left in place even if fewer than 25 pieces per day are generated,” the policy says.
The Postal Service Inspector General, the Postal Service’s watchdog, has repeatedly found that boxes are removed without proper approval and notice to the public. The IG also has reported that not every low-volume box is removed.
“Only 60 of the 6,371 underused business and residential collection boxes identified in the 2015 national density test were removed or relocated,” the inspector general wrote in an audit of the Eastern Area’s operations in 2016.
That report found that removing an additional 1,800 boxes in that region could have saved the agency $3.5 million over 5 years.
Dire finances, heated politics
DeJoy became postmaster in June and immediately implemented measures including a hiring freeze, eliminating overtime and removing sorting machines from some locations.
Given the post office’s dire financial situation, that was to be expected with any new postmaster general, said James O’Rourke, a professor of management at the University of Notre Dame. The first thing any new executive does with a floundering company is examine expenses and look for cost-cutting, he said.
But with the election looming, the delivery delays that resulted fueled fears that some ballots might not reach election offices in time.
The timing conflated DeJoy’s cost reductions with Trump’s political rhetoric against mail-in voting, according Kaufman with the ACLU.
“Coronavirus and concern about the election has made people really vocal about how much they need and trust the Postal Service,” Kaufman said. “That’s something that maybe we’ve taken for granted for a while, and a lot of vulnerable people rely on it.”
However, after talking to postal unions and others, he said he has no doubt the Postal Service should have the capacity to ramp up to handle an election.
The Postal Service’s bleeding started with the Accountability Act in 2006, which required the agency to pre-fund health benefits for potential future retirees, O’Rourke said. That requirement cost the agency more than $20 billion from 2007 to 2010 and it hasn’t been able to make any contributions since, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The Postal Service also does not receive federal funding and instead relies upon the revenue it generates from postage, which has been declining. The agency reports a 31.4% decline in pieces of mail delivered since 2000.
“Now, we are facing a circumstance where the USPS is more important than ever – especially in the context of the election,” Cafaro said.
The last year the Postal Service recorded any profit was 2006, and its cumulative losses since then total $83.1 billion.
DeJoy said the measures he’s undertaken this summer and initiatives such as collection box removal that were in place before his appointment are all in the service of long-term viability for the Postal Service. Still, he pledged this month to suspend cuts until after the election “to avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail.”
But trust in the Postal Service has already been damaged, said Patti Brigham, president of the League of Women voters of Florida.
“The seeds of doubt have now been sown,” she said. “We are concerned that this is an attempt at massive voter suppression. What’s going on is too coincidental.”
In Florida, for example, 2.2 million people voted by mail in the recent primary election, a 78% increase from the 2016 presidential primary. Brigham is expecting similar increases across the nation for the general election.
Typically, mail-in voters are white, wealthier voters who already know the process, said Bernard Fraga, an associate professor of political science at Emory University. But this year, he said, experts anticipated many first-time mail-in voters even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The question we need to ask,” Fraga said, “is whether any of these changes will make it more difficult for voters trying to vote by mail for the first time.”
Surveys showed many African American and Latino voters had planned to vote by mail for the first time this year, but that may be changing. One poll released Aug. 19 by the Voter Participation center found two-thirds of African Americans in Georgia did not trust voting by mail because they did not think their votes would be counted.
Fraga fears many who were already on the fence about voting will decide not to vote at all.
“Anytime you’re removing a mailbox or reducing Postal Service to a community that’s disadvantaged,” Cafaro said, “it’s going to have a deep impact on that community’s connectivity, and in this case, their connectivity to vote.”
Reporters and editors at USA TODAY Network newspapers covering communities in 20 states checked mailbox locations for this story.