Anticipating an avalanche of absentee ballots, the U.S. Postal Service recently sent detailed letters to 46 states and the District of Columbia warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted — adding another layer of uncertainty ahead of the high-stakes presidential contest.

The letters sketch a grim possibility for the tens of millions of Americans eligible for a mail-in ballot this fall: Even if people follow all of their state’s election rules, the pace of Postal Service delivery may disqualify their votes.

The Postal Service’s warnings of potential disenfranchisement came as the agency undergoes a sweeping organizational and policy overhaul amid dire financial conditions. Cost-cutting moves have already delayed mail delivery by as much as a week in some places, and a new decision to decommission 10% of the Postal Service’s sorting machines sparked widespread concern the slowdowns will only worsen. Rank-and-file postal workers say the move is ill-timed and could sharply diminish the speedy processing of flat mail, including letters and ballots.

The ballot warnings, issued at the end of July from Thomas J. Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president of the Postal Service, and obtained through a records request by the Washington Post, were planned before the appointment of Louis DeJoy, a former logistics executive and ally of President Donald Trump, as postmaster general in early summer. They go beyond the traditional coordination between the Postal Service and election officials, drafted as fears surrounding the coronavirus pandemic triggered an unprecedented and sudden shift to mail-in voting.

Some states anticipate 10 times the normal volume of election mail. Six states and D.C. received warnings that ballots could be delayed for a narrow set of voters. But the Postal Service gave 40 others — including the key battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida — more-serious warnings that their long-standing deadlines for requesting, returning or counting ballots were “incongruous” with mail service and that voters who send ballots in close to those deadlines may become disenfranchised.

“The Postal Service is asking election officials and voters to realistically consider how the mail works,” Martha Johnson, a spokeswoman for the USPS, said in a statement.

In response to the Postal Service’s warnings, a few states have quickly moved deadlines — forcing voters to request or cast ballots earlier, or deciding to delay tabulating results while waiting for more ballots to arrive.

Pennsylvania election officials cited its letter late Thursday in asking the state’s Supreme Court for permission to count ballots delivered three days after Election Day. But deadlines in many other states have not been or cannot be adjusted with just weeks remaining before the first absentee ballots hit the mail stream. More than 60 lawsuits in at least two dozen states over the mechanics of mail-in voting are wending their way through the courts.

Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that mail ballots lead to widespread voter fraud and in the process politicized the USPS. This week, he said he opposes emergency funding for the agency — which has repeatedly requested more resources — because of Democratic efforts to expand mail voting.

The Postal Service’s structural upheaval alone has led experts and lawmakers from both parties to worry about timely delivery of prescription medications and Social Security checks, as well as ballots.

“The slowdown is another tool in the toolbox of voter suppression,” said Celina Stewart, senior director of advocacy and litigation with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters. “That’s no secret. We do think this is a voter-suppression tactic.”

Vanita Gupta, a Justice Department official in the Obama administration and now president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said she viewed the situation as “the weaponization of the U.S. Postal Service for the president’s electoral purposes.”

“It’s completely outrageous that the U.S. Postal Service is in this position,” Gupta said.

DeJoy, in service changes last month, has drastically reduced overtime and banned extra trips to ensure on-time mail delivery. His wholesale reorganizations ousted several agency veterans in key operational roles. And the USPS is currently decommissioning 10% of its costly and bulky mail-sorting machines, which workers say could hinder processing of election mail, according to a grievance filed by the American Postal Workers Union and obtained by the Washington Post. Those 671 machines, scattered across the country but concentrated in high-population areas, have the capacity to sort 21.4 million pieces of paper mail per hour.

The machine reductions, together with existing mail delays and a surge of packages — a boon to the Postal Service’s finances but a headache for an organization designed to handle paper rather than boxes — also risk hamstringing the agency as the election approaches and have lead lawmakers to hike up pressure on DeJoy to rescind his directives.

DeJoy wrote in a letter to USPS workers Thursday that temporary delivery slowdowns were “unintended consequences” of his efficiency moves but that the “discipline” he was bringing to the agency “will increase our performance for the election and upcoming peak season and maintain the high level of public trust we have earned for dedication and commitment to our customers throughout our history.”

DeJoy declined to be interviewed, but in a statement the USPS described the machine reductions as a matter of “routinely” moving equipment to accommodate the mix of packages and letters in the mail stream. Doing so “will ensure more efficient, cost effective operations and better service for our customers,” the statement said.

Even without the emergency funding Trump vowed to block, postal workers can handle the country’s mail-in ballots with proper planning, the head of their union said.

“Piece of cake for postal workers,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union.

Johnson, the USPS spokeswoman, also said the agency “is well prepared and has ample capacity to deliver America’s election mail.”

The letters to states detailing concerns for November followed ramped-up vote-by-mail primaries marred by serious delivery problems. It “presented a need to ensure the Postal Service’s recommendations were reemphasized to elections officials,” Johnson said.

In New York City, for example, a 17-fold increase in mail-in ballots left results of a June congressional primary race in doubt for six weeks. During court wrangling over it, USPS workers said elections officials had dropped off 34,000 blank absentee ballots at a Brooklyn processing center on the day before the election, leaving postal workers scrambling in an attempt to deliver them overnight. Some voters received ballots after the election, and tens of thousands of voted ballots were initially thrown out because of delayed receipt.

The letters warning about November caution many states that their deadlines for voters to request an absentee ballot are too close to Election Day and that “the Postal Service cannot adjust its delivery standards to accommodate the requirements of state election law.” The letters put the onus on election officials to adjust deadlines or educate voters to act well before them.

Mail carriers, meanwhile, have warned that new cost-cutting measures at the USPS are slowing the delivery of mail ballots in key states. Recent contests have offered a preview of the potential consequences, with voters — particularly in urban areas such as Detroit and the Bronx — complaining that their absentee ballots did not arrive until the last minute or at all.

The problems predate the cost-cutting measures — a late returned ballot was the chief reason absentee or mail ballots were disqualified during the 2016 election, according to U.S. Election Assistance Commission data submitted to Congress.

But the onslaught of vote-by-mail ballots, driven by directives to stay at home and practice social distancing during the pandemic, has increased the volume of delays this year. In D.C.’s early-June primary, elections officials drove around town hand-delivering ballots because the mail service was not quick enough. In Florida, 18,500 mailed ballots arrived too late to be counted during the March primary. Tens of thousands of late ballots in Pennsylvania were counted only after courts intervened.

Eighteen states and D.C. have eased or expanded access to mail ballots during the pandemic, allowing concerned voters to avoid potential exposure to the virus at polling places. These policy shifts have brought the number of Americans who are eligible to cast mail or absentee ballots in the general election to a historic high of nearly 180 million, roughly 97 million of whom will automatically receive an absentee ballot or an absentee ballot request form in the mail, according to a tally by the Washington Post.

An analysis of the USPS letters to states reveals that the threat of ballot rejection because of missed delivery deadlines may be highest for voters in 40 states that received serious warnings. About 159.5 million registered voters live in those states.

According to the letters, the risk of disenfranchisement is greatest for voters who wait until close to Election Day to request or cast a ballot. The letters advised 31 states that regardless of their deadlines, voters should mail ballots no later than Oct. 27 — a week before Election Day — if they want to guarantee they are counted.

Elections officials across the country are also installing drop boxes for completed ballots and encouraging voters to use them in lieu of the Postal Service.

The USPS did not offer serious warnings to the five states that have long conducted universal vote-by-mail elections — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

For Nevada, which Trump accused in May of trying to “cheat” in elections after it announced plans to conduct a statewide primary by mail, the USPS delivered a clean bill of health. The state plans to mail ballots to all active voters for the general election.

“Under our reading of Nevada’s election laws, it appears that your voters should have sufficient time to receive, complete, and return their ballots by the state’s deadlines,” the letter stated.

Trump tweeted Wednesday: “Nevada has ZERO infrastructure for Mail-In Voting. It will be a corrupt disaster if not ended by the Courts. It will take months, or years, to figure out.”

Postal workers, meanwhile, are concerned over the ongoing removal of mail sorting machines in areas that project to be hotly contested in the presidential race.

The machines — Automated Facer-Canceler Systems, Delivery Bar Code Sorters, Automated Flat Sorting Machines and Flat Sequencing Systems — can label and sort tens of thousands of paper mail items, such as letters, bills and ballots, each hour.

Purchased when letters and not packages made up a greater share of postal work, the bulky and aging machines can be expensive to maintain and take up floor space postal leaders say would be better devoted to boxes. Removing underused machines would make the overall system more efficient, postal leaders say. The USPS has cut back on mail-sorting equipment for years since mail volume began to decline in the 2000s.

The machines, however, fundamentally changed the job of some postal workers, allowing them to spend more time on the street delivering mail, rather than in post offices organizing it.

Elections officials in several states contacted by the Washington Post said that their deadlines for voting by mail had been in place for years and that the Postal Service has long noted some concerns about meeting them. Some officials received the warnings with skepticism, others with resignation.

“This is a conversation that has been going on with the Postal Service, to my knowledge, at least five years,” said Alabama Republican Secretary of State John Merrill. While the deadlines haven’t changed, “as we all know, the Postal Service has changed,” he said. “It has become much more inefficient and much more ineffective at returning the mail in a timely fashion. That has happened over several years.”

Wisconsin’s deadlines were set years ago, when it was reasonable to expect a letter dropped in the mail to arrive in another part of the state two days later, elections officials said this week. But with increasingly slower delivery times and no recourse for bureaucrats to change the deadlines, elections officials are focusing on what they can do — encouraging voters to take on more responsibility to request and cast mail-in ballots early, as well as installing drop boxes and implementing a bar code tracking system for voters to monitor their ballots.

Teaching voters “requires a more robust campaign,” said Meagan Wolfe, administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. The state also is encouraging local elections officials in charge of mailing out the ballots to coordinate more than ever with local post offices.

In response to the USPS letter, Arizona changed its guidance for when voters should mail back their completed ballots, from at least six to at least seven days before the election, a spokeswoman for Arizona Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs wrote in an e-mail. Maryland shifted its long-standing ballot-request deadline back a full week.

“It was the Postal Service trying to cover themselves,” Patrick J. Hogan, a Democrat and vice chair of the Maryland State Board of Elections, said of the letter. He supported the deadline change anyway, saying the risk of delayed ballots was not worth it.

“This is the way we have to operate,” he said. “We’ve got to get people in the mind-set of getting things done early. There will be no excuse to not vote this year.”

Missouri Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said the warning to his state appeared to be a “typical CYA exercise” that ignored his state’s policy changes and messaging campaigns aimed at alleviating election-season pressure on USPS.

In 2018, Missouri moved up its deadline for requesting an absentee ballot to provide additional time for ballots to be delivered and returned, he said. Praising local election authorities for running three smooth votes so far this year, Ashcroft said there are special efforts underway to encourage voters to obtain and submit their absentee ballots with time to spare.

“I didn’t see how it was at all helpful,” he said of the USPS letter, adding: “This is not something that is new to us. It’s something we’ve been working on for years, and I think we’ve been ahead of it. For USPS to send something out at the end of July — we’re in the silly season of politics.”

Reading from the letter, Ashcroft disputed a recommendation that Missouri voters who mail their completed ballots “no later than Tuesday, October 27,” could be assured of arrival by Election Day. He recounted the experience of a voter in St. Louis during the state’s June municipal contests — she dropped her ballot in the mail six days before the election, he said, but it took 14 days to arrive at an address in the same city and was not counted as a result.

“If you mail it on Tuesday, you have no certainty it will get back in time,” he said. “I know that from experience.”

 

The Washington Post’s Jada Yuan contributed to this report.