Everyone thinks D.C. is lousy with politicians and lobbyists. But it's also chock-full of crime fiction writers.
Cutting employee overtime and removing mailboxes and sorting machines, U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has infuriated many over changes he’s made in the name of cost-cutting — changes that have slowed mail delivery, including in the DMV. Letters and packages — including medication — are arriving days or weeks after they were expected.
Many also see the mail slow-down as a deliberate attempt to stymie democracy, as Congressional lawmakers charged in hearings last week. Maryland and Virginia joined a coalition of states and sued the Postal Service in hopes of protecting the 2020 elections. And although DeJoy has promised to reverse course until after Election Day, some still wonder whether all mail-in ballots will be counted. And voting rights groups are crying foul as President Trump admitted last week that he opposed additional funding for the U.S.P.S.to slow the delivery of mail-in ballots.
How has our region been affected by DeJoy’s initiatives? And is mail-in voting still a safe option for 2020 General Election voters?
Produced by Richard Cunningham
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show'' on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast, Kojo for Kids welcomes NASA astrophysicist Michelle Thaller. But first, the postmaster general and the Trump administration have been accused in the past few weeks of orchestrating a plan to slow mail and sabotage mail-in voting to favor the president in the upcoming election. People in Washington region and across the nation report that they haven't received their mail and packages on time. Many have protested, including in front of the Washington apartment building of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.
KOJO NNAMDIThough he now says ballots will be a priority for USPS, it was only last month that the postal service told states that mail-in voting could be jeopardized. Because of the pandemic, many voting rights advocacy groups have been pushing for easy access to absentee ballots. But many also worry that the postal service has already compromised the election. What's going on with the postal service? And how would the Washington area and voting in the Washington area be affected?
KOJO NNAMDIJoining us now is Bennett Leckrone, a Reporter at Maryland Matters and a core member of Report for America. Bennett, than you for joining us.
BENNETT LECKRONEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIBennett, how did this crisis over the postal service and voting rights begin?
LECKRONESo, Louis DeJoy took office on June 15th. He was a campaign donor to President Trump and a businessman with no prior USPS experience. There are a reported number of changes that DeJoy implemented upon taking office, including decommissioning 671 sorting machines between June and September, eliminating overtime, ordering carriers to leave mail behind if it delays their routes, removing mailboxes and a few other things. Of course, that wasn't very public until lawmakers in Maryland and across the nation started hearing from constituents that their mail was late.
NNAMDICan you describe the impact of those cuts that you described, sorting machines, mailboxes?
LECKRONESo, in addition to sort of stoking fears about the election, it means that there will be delays, you know, in the postal service. I mean, some Marylanders have reported that they've even seen delays in getting their medication. Their priority mail is late. And there has been a drop off in mail delivery in recent weeks because sorting machines, of course, help Post Offices handle the volume of mail that they receive.
NNAMDIBennett, how does the leadership of the Postal Service justify these cuts and changes?
LECKRONEInterestingly DeJoy denied making those changes to the Senate last week and, again, just hours ago to the House. Although he does have a plan for, you know, sort of making the Postal Service more efficient, minimize losses, and he says that he wants to sort of avert the multibillion dollar loses that the Postal Service sees every year.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Kat Calvin, Founder and Executive Director of Spread the Vote, a voting rights group looking to increase voter participation and voter education. Kat Calvin, thank you for joining us.
KAT CALVINThanks for having me.
NNAMDITell us a little bit more about Spread the Vote and some of the work your organization does.
CALVINSure. So, one of the big things that we do is we help voters in primarily voter I.D. states actually obtain DMV I.D.s. So, there are over 21 million eligible voters in the country who don't have I.D. And voter I.D. laws are on the books in 36 states. And so we help folks obtain documents, go to the DMV. We, you know, pay for everything. Help with advocacy. Anyone who's ever been to the DMV knows how hard it is to get an I.D. and the large stack of documents you have to have. And for folks who don't have I.D., you know it means you also can't have a job. It's difficult to get housing. It's difficult sometimes to get a night at a shelter or food at a food bank and, lately, COVID testing. And so there are a lot of barriers that stop people from getting an I.D., which then stops them from being able to vote. So, we do a lot of work in 12 different states helping people get I.D.s.
CALVINBut then, on top of that, because 77 percent of our clients have never voted before and we have sort of this larger world of a huge need of voter education, we do a lot of work producing voter guides for first-time voters. This year, we're doing a lot of different types of online virtual voter education. And we're doing a lot of combination of in-person and virtual voter education in different sort of shelters and jails. We're doing a program around the country called Vote by Mail in Jail, by which we're helping inmates who are incarcerated but who can vote be able to vote. So, you know, our big thing is, first of all, making sure that folks have I.D.s for everything that they need. But also having to make sure that whether it's our clients and communities or the larger voting community has the knowledge and the skills and all of the things that they need to be able to overcome the huge barriers that stop people who are registered to vote, because 83 percent of eligible voters are actually registered. But only 55 percent turned out in 2016. And there's a huge -- there's a lot of reasons for that big gap, and we ty to close that gap.
NNAMDIHere is Joyce in Bethesda, Maryland. Joyce, you're on the air. Go ahead, please
JOYCEHi. I noticed a slowdown in shipping about, I don't know, four weeks ago. I had a couple of packages that were delayed. And one of them was shipped August 3rd, a two-day from Charlottesville, Virginia to Bethesda, Maryland. And it took from August 3rd to August 21st to get here. And I watched the tracking. It went from Richmond, where it sat for like five days, then out to Oakland, California and sat out there for like four days, and then got shipped back to me. So, it was a two day priority mail and it took me about 18 days to get it.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that story with us, Joyce. Kat Calvin, Joyce is calling from Bethesda, Maryland, which is not a low-income community, but let's talk about how mail slowdowns have impacted low income and other vulnerable communities in this region. How have their lives been affected?
CALVINWell, you know, one of the things that we've had to do is, of course, helping people get I.D.s. We've had to switch to a lot of virtual work. And, you know, we work all through Virginia, and have for several years. And we have had I.D.s and birth certificates and documents that have been sent to us get lost. We've had them delayed by weeks and weeks. We've had to reorder. And, of course, when you call the DMV and say, "Hey, I never got my I.D." They make you jump through tons of hoops in order to get new ones. And so it's really caused a lot of problems in the DMV and around the country with us even just trying to get those basic documents. But, you know, we're also are in a lot of rural areas. And a lot of people in rural areas depend on the Postal Service for things like prescriptions. You know, we've seen a lot of people who pay their bills by mail, who then the check gets their late, and so they get hit with late fees. And, you know, if you are living paycheck-to-paycheck and you get hit with a late fee that can completely throw your economic balance off.
CALVINAnd there's a huge percentage of the county that doesn't have access to the internet. Only one percent of our clients even have regular access to a phone. And so a lot of people operate purely by mail and really depend on USPS. And we're seeing just delays and lost packages all over the country, and it's really hurting people.
NNAMDIKat Calvin, many have charged the Postmaster General and the Trump administration with using the Post Office as a tool for voter suppression. Do you agree with that assessment?
CALVINWell, I mean the president has said directly. So, I don't think it's really a matter of agree or disagree. He's directly said that he doesn't want USPS to be funded because then more people would be able to vote by mail, which he thinks could lead to an excessive amount of fraud. Now, every study in the planet has shown there is practically no fraud in vote-by-mail. But I mean, that's something that he has just affirmatively said. So, I think what we need to do is take him at his word, and then figure out how do we solve for that problem.
NNAMDIWell, last week the Postmaster General said he would halt many of the changes that had slowed mail delivery. And he pledged at a Congressional hearing on Friday that the delivery of ballots would be the Post Office's top priority. Do those promises reassure you at all?
CALVINWell, he said he'd halt, but he didn't say he'd reverse. And he didn't give us any actual plans for how USPS would be making ballots a priority. And I think, from everything we've seen, I think it's difficult to take him at his word. So, I think we can hope. But I don't think it's something we can count on. And the other problem is that at this point so many people have lost faith in the system. And, you know, we're getting lots of people are saying, "Well, I don't want to vote by mail, because I don't trust it and I don't think that there is a lot that this administration can or will do over the next couple of months to give people more faith in the system." And so I think that we have now reached a point where we have a lot of problems that I don't think that the Postmaster General can or has shown a real willingness to fix before the election.
NNAMDISo, are there steps that could be taken to restore your faith that the Post Office can do its job properly in the 2020 election?
CALVINYeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, first of all of one of the things that we are really encouraging people to do is request your ballot early. If you're not in one of the few states -- I think it's only about nine states at this point, and some states are still deciding that have just said they're going to immediately send either vote by mail ballots or applications. And it's important to know which is in your state. So, request your absentee ballot now. Like, literally, while you're listening to this, request your absentee ballot. And then, if you're going to mail it in, fill out your ballot the day you get it and mail it back. It's really important that you give your ballot as much time as possible to be delivered. However, also check and see if you're in one of the 13 states, and D.C. is one of them, where -- 13 seat states and D.C. -- where there will be drop boxes for ballots. And whatever the president says, drop boxes for ballots are actually very secure. They're not a mechanism for voter fraud.
CALVINAnd it means that you could put your ballot in a box, where it will be directly delivered to the Board of Elections. And so it won't have to go through USPS. Also consider turning in your ballot at the -- at a polling place. You can walk up to most polling places and just, like, hand it in and, again, avoid that USPS process. So, the biggest thing is start early and have a plan. Figure out what the rules are in your state and in your county. Some counties are different. And then decide really early how are you going to get your ballot actually to the polling place or the Board of Elections to be counted.
NNAMDIHow do people find and identify the drop boxes?
CALVINSo, the best way is to go to your state Board of Elections site, which is very frequently like, you know, elections.va.gov, or whatever. But you can just Goggle "Maryland Board of Elections." And they will not only list what the rules are for each county, but will update as things change. So, boards of election still have plenty of time in which they could change the rules. So, it's important to check those sites regularly because they can still add drop boxes. They can still decide in states that they're going to send out applications to everyone. So, check your board of elections site regularly. They probably are -- most of them are on social media. So, you can follow them and keep up with those changes there.
NNAMDII'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking Postal Woes: Your Mail and Your Vote, with Bennett Leckrone. Bennett Leckrone is a Reporter of Maryland Matters and a core member of Report for America. Kat Calvin is founder and executive director of Spread the Vote, a voting rights group looking to increase voter participation and voter education. And we're taking your call at 800-433-8850. We got an email from Victoria, who writes: The Credit Union sent out a notice of certificate renewal dated 3rd August. My mother received it on the 13th of August. And now here is Star in Washington D.C. Star, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STARThank you very much for taking my call. I just wanted to say that I'm a senior resident in D.C. I have a friend in her early 90s who is also in D.C. at a nursing home. And because she's been prevented from seeing people, I took pains to send her a greeting card about once every three weeks to -- she has partial dementia. Just to make sure she knew why people weren't coming and to check in. And I just found out a couple of weeks ago that these cards, which were sent from middle of March, not one of them arrived. So, I have very little confidence in the system right now. And I think that even though I'm a senior, I'm probably going to take the risk to vote in person. And I just wanted to add that it took an added cruelty to seniors who are already feeling frightened and isolated from family and friends not be able to receive things like greeting cards. I'm sure this is not an isolated incident. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIYou're welcome. Thank you very much for your call. On the question of voting, Kat Calvin, Brian in Arlington couldn't stay on the line, but asks: Why has no one mentioned the possibility of mailing ballots and return receipt requested?
CALVINThat's a great question. You know, I think that it's definitely worth trying. But given all of the challenges with USPS and given the millions and millions of ballots -- so we're expecting -- normally, we have 40 million mail-in ballots a year. We're expecting 80 or more this year, and USPS is already overwhelmed. So, I think certainly if you want to add an extra level of ensuring that your ballot gets there, that you can try that. But, you know, there are other ways, as well. So, over 42 states, and including D.C., you can actually track your ballot. So, you don't have to do a sort of return receipt thing. There is usually a number or something. You scan it. Just really depends on the state. But you can track your ballot at every step and make sure that it gets delivered, etcetera. So, there are a lot of different options in most states for how you can make sure that your ballot was delivered.
CALVINBut if it's in the mail and doesn't get delivered, whether or not it has a return receipt on it or not -- given the state of the USPS right now, I couldn't say for sure how much that's going to make a big difference.
NNAMDIBennett Leckrone, let's get back to what's been going on in our region. We've heard reports across the country of mail boxes being locked up or taken away. Has anything like this happened in the District, Maryland, Virginia?
LECKRONEIt's difficult to tell with mailboxes because those numbers aren't readily available. According to Maryland's Attorney General Brian Frosh's lawsuit four sorting machines have been removed from the Baltimore USPS plant. And two have been removed from an incoming mail facility located in Anne Arundel County near Baltimore.
NNAMDIHere is Christian, in Connecticut. Christian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISTIANYeah, I just had a quick question. In terms of this new U.S. Postal Service head and the way that the Trump administration has been running the government, is there any conversation that anybody is having to the effect that government operations or organizations, things like the U.S. Postal Service, things like, you know -- these aren't for-profit businesses. So, the idea to save money or the need to create a savings or to make it profitable, is that technically something that is not even what the Post Office was built for? And, like, why would we need to make a profit or -- I'm just kind appeased as to what they're trying to save money doing or -- because it's not -- we don't run the United States as a --
NNAMDIAs a for-profit.
NNAMDIKat Calvin, on Friday, and again today, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are holding hearings on recent Post Office changes. Do you think any of those hearings will address the issue that our caller just raised? And that is the notion that apparently there are some people who think that the Postal Service should be making money. What impact do you think the hearings on the Hill are going to have on this issue and on voting rights?
CALVINWell, I think we've seen over the last several years that hearings on the Hill don't seem to have much of an impact in any way. So, I have a hard saying what impact they're going to have. You know, there are things they could be doing. The Senate could be working on passing the HEROES Act and other legislation that could actually make a difference. They could be funding the Post Office. I don't know how much impact are going to have on anything. I think as far as the question of profitability that goes to a larger question, which the caller referenced, which is we have a really, you know, fundamental divide in how people think about the government. You know, we have this conversation when we talk about healthcare, when we talk about climate change. Is the government a for-profit business, or is the government something that is supposed to ensuring, you know, safety and equality of life and protection for American citizens, and what balance? I don't think that's, you know, something that is certainly going to be solved in the next week.
CALVINAnd I don't know if that -- at all is something that's going to be addressed in the hearings. And as far as voting rights, I think it's the same thing. There are things that Congress could be doing. There are things that the Senate could be passing. You know, a voting rights bill passed the House a dozen times now that they're not even taking up, so, you know, hearings don't have a big impact. Legislation does. And we're not seeing legislation get passed.
NNAMDIA listener tweets: Please mention that voters from all over the country can get info and help from the non-partisan election protection hotline. Call 866-OUR-VOTE, or online, Tweeter @866ourvote, or on the web. And now here is MC in Haymarket, Virginia. MC, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MCHello. Thank you for taking my call. I'm planning to drop off my ballot at either the election office or a polling place. And I was wondering if I am allowed to offer to my neighbors who can't get there to take their ballot for them, or does each person need to do it themselves?
CALVINSo, I am so glad that you asked this question. In 20 states, plus D.C., they do allow third party ballot returns. So, again, check your Board of Elections. Check your state. But in quite a few states, yes, you can pick up ballots for friends, family, you know, senior, etcetera and turn them in. And it's a fantastic thing to do. Thank you for asking that.
NNAMDIBennett Leckrone, though, the Postmaster General last week reversed himself on many of the things that the lawsuits that you mentioned that Maryland and Virginia have joined other states in filing. The states are continuing to press forward with them. Can you explain why?
LECKRONEYeah. So, I think the concern comes from, as we've mentioned, worries over the Postal Service and the election. I mean, those still persist and those have been sort of firmly rooted, at this point. Even though, postal workers, you know, are urging the public to sort of keep the faith in the Postal Service. Those worries are still there, and they're not going to go away. So, I think that the lawsuits continue in a way to build up voter confidence and to continue to demand answers, some of which haven't been given yet.
NNAMDILet me go now to Marie, in West Virginia. Marie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARIEThank you. Thank you for taking my call. I would like to point out that I find it intriguing that DeJoy's comments in his hearings assure the public and the government that he will guarantee that people's ballots will be delivered, and he states, through the Election Day. So, in fact, he's not lying. My question is, what happens the day after Election Day? What happens when those ballots are one day late, two days late, three weeks late?
NNAMDIKat Calvin, we only have about 30 seconds.
CALVINWell, it's a good question, and we have no answer for it. And the thing to do is just get your ballot in as early as possible.
NNAMDIKat Calvin is Founder and Executive Director of Spread the Vote, a voting rights group looking to increase voter participation and voter education. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIBennett Leckrone is a Reporter of Maryland Matters and a core member of Report for America. Bennett, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIShort break. When we come back, it's Kojo for Kids with NASA Astrophysicist Michelle Thaller. Remember, adults can listen, but only kids can call. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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