By Paul Rozycki
What would it take to make 2020 the most disruptive year in decades?
How about a global pandemic, where the U.S. has more cases than every other nation on earth?
How about an economic collapse, with unemployment worse than anything seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s?
How about racial divisions more intense than anything since the 1960s civil rights era?
How about an election that revolves around the most divisive and bombastic president that the nation has ever seen?
How about the U.S. Postal Service? What?? The Postal Service??
In a time of global pandemic, economic collapse, racial conflict and the most divisive election in a century, who ever thought a hot-button issue would be the U.S. Postal Service? We all feel that we know the government agency that delivers the birthday card from Aunt Millie, your Flint water bill, a fistful of catalogues, and the latest sweepstakes offer from Publisher’s Clearing House. It’s one of the most highly regarded government organizations. And since the days of Ben Franklin, it’s done it with its motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
But today, it is at the center of this year’s biggest election dispute. How do we vote in the time of COVID-19? As more of us chose to stay home and vote absentee, two problems have arisen. Can the Postal Service deliver ballots to the voters, and return them in time to local clerks? And can local election officials adapt to the dramatic increase in absentee voters?
The U.S. Postal Service
The U,S. Postal Service has been around since the days of Ben Franklin, delivering mail to 157 million addresses in the nation. But, unlike most other federal agencies, it isn’t supported by taxes. It’s expected to run on the revenues from those who mail letters and packages.
Though the details are complex, currently, the Postal Service faces at least two big problems: it has 300,000 fewer employees than in the past, and more retirees. Currently, it has about 500,000 employees and nearly 600,000 retirees. The demand to fully fund their retirement program has placed increasing pressure on the Postal Service.
At the same time, the volume of mail has dropped significantly in recent years, as more people and businesses move to Facebook and email. The total volume of mail has fallen by more than 30 percent in the last decade. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the problem even worse as business mail has declined.
The financial problems of the Postal Service are serious and real — it faces a $9 billion shortfall this year. But now it is facing cuts as it prepares to deliver 80 million absentee ballots for the 2020 election. Nearly three-quarters of all Americans will be eligible to vote by mail this fall, and estimates are that more than half may do so. Some experts predict a record turnout for November. Yet, for an organization that delivers 182 million pieces of first-class mail, and 472 million total pieces of mail every day, 80 million or more absentee ballots, over a few weeks, should be manageable.
Cuts in Postal Service
However, the current administration has initiated cost-cutting measures that hamper the ability of the Postal Service to deliver ballots during what is expected to be a contentious and divisive election. Much of the cuts seem to have been directed at limiting the ability of voters to cast ballots by mail — in response to a much discredited idea that somehow mail-in voting encourages fraud. While some of those cost-cutting measures have been postponed until after the election, some have already taken place. The end result is that the Postal Service has fewer resources than in the recent past, which raises doubt about its ability to deliver and return ballots on time. Whatever justification the cuts might or might not have, they undermine trust in both the postal service and our election at a time when trust is in very short supply. President Trump’s comments about mail-in voting, and the postal service, have only increased the distrust.
Local election clerks
While the postal service struggles with the changes in how we vote, so do local election clerks. As absentee/mail-in voting becomes the norm, local clerks and state laws need to respond to those changes.
The change hasn’t always been easy, as the recent ACLU suit against the City of Flint highlighted during the August primary. As reported in the East Village Magazine, a court order required greater transparency and speedier processing of ballots in the Flint City Clerk’s office. A recent letter from Genesee County Election Supervisor Doreen Fulcher raised additional questions about the efficiency and transparency of the office.
A record number of mail-in voters
Of the 2.5 million votes cast in the Michigan August primary, 1.6 million were absentee/mail-in votes, a record number. Of that number, a little more than 10,000 were not counted. About 6,400 arrived late, and about 1,400 had no signatures. Nearly 800 had signatures that did not match. There is a bill in the legislature (HB 5991) that would require clerks to contact voters if there was a problem with the signature. While there were some other problems with polls opening late in Detroit, workers not showing up, and some late results, in the end, most results were reported within a day, in spite of the problems.
While the Flint clerk’s office faces legal challenges, it is not alone in trying to deal with the dramatic increase in absentee voting this year. City and county clerks around the state are facing similar concerns. One of the problems is the uncertainty of the turnout this year. While absentee voting is expected to be at record levels, clerks needs to decide how many polling places to open, and how many staffers to assign to absentee ballots. How many voters will want to vote in person? How many will vote absentee? How many poll workers will fail to show up for fear of the COVID-19 virus? The answers are not clear. Those problems may work themselves out in time, but right now there is a great deal of uncertainty and confusion.
Changes in the law?
In response, the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks has proposed a number of changes in the law.
The Association is concerned about the upcoming fall election, when they expect more than 3 million absentee ballots to be cast, double what they dealt with in August. It has recommended several changes to assure that the balloting goes smoothly in November.
It would like to be able to begin opening the envelopes for absentee ballots before the end of Election Day, freeing up workers for other tasks during the final count. Today, some 32 states, including Ohio and Illinois, allow some early processing of absentee ballots prior to Election Day. Some states allow the votes to be counted when they arrive, even if that is days before the election.
Many would like to have those ballots that are postmarked before Election Day to be counted as well. Current Michigan law requires that ballots must arrive in the clerk’s office by Election Day to be counted. That has been one problem for those who vote by mail in the last few days before the election. There is currently a bill in the legislature (HB 5987) that would allow votes to be counted up to two days after Election Day, as long as they were postmarked by Election Day.
Most clerks say they need more resources for staff and equipment to deal with the expected flood of ballots in the fall. With the threat of COVID-19, many of those who usually work the polls are not available, and the clerks would like to pay more to hire increased staff for the day.
What we should do
So what should the average voter do this year to make sure your vote is counted and the election is fair?
- Vote early. If you plan to vote absentee, and mail your vote, do so early. In Michigan, the recommended date is no later than Oct. 27, but many suggest that Oct. 20 would be a wiser deadline.
- If you don’t mail your ballot, use the drop boxes that will be located throughout the city.
- Check your ballot carefully. Especially if this is your first time voting absentee, make sure you have signed it, voted for the appropriate number of candidates, and inserted it into the envelope correctly.
- Be a poll worker. There is likely to be a great need for additional poll workers as demand increases and veteran poll workers retire.
- Support the Postal Service and election clerks with the resources they need to adjust to the new voting reality. There are a number of bills and proposals being considered that will give more resources to both.
- However and whenever you do it, vote! Vote! Vote!
EVM political commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.