By Steve Coll, July 29, 2020 The New Yorker
The American system for organizing elections is a crazy quilt of decentralization. More than eight thousand counties and towns administer voting. There is something admirably earnest and grassroots about the network of town clerks and gray-haired volunteers who fuss over the mechanisms of our democracy. Yet, because the system is embedded in local politics, even in this era of relatively clean local administration (by the standards of American history), it remains susceptible to bribery and scams. More consequently, because election authorities are subordinate to city, county, and state politicians, they have contributed to systematic racist voter suppression, as happened on a grand scale during the Jim Crow era and continues in subtler but important ways today.
This year, owing to the coronavirus pandemic, election technocrats face intense problems of a new kind, largely due to an unexpected surge in the use of mailed ballots. Absentee voting exploded during the spring primary season; in Wisconsin, in April, a million voters sent ballots through the mail, a fivefold increase over 2016. Growth on that scale is all but certain to continue into November. The ways that legal votes may fail to be counted are as diverse as the jurisdictions that will process the ballots, yet there is one big national institution that will play a decisive part: the United States Postal Service. And there are many reasons to doubt that the service is ready to backstop American democracy in this time of peril.
In theory, elections by mail are good for the Postal Service—they are a source of revenue and a prominent reminder of the value of its mission of universal service, which has been under assault for years from advocates of privatization. The pandemic has already made obvious the value of a service that still delivers mail reliably—even if unprofitably—to the most isolated rural households. “The Postal Service has never been more important in modern times than it is today,” Devin Leonard, the author of “Neither Snow nor Rain,” a lively history of the institution, told me. “You can’t have stay-at-home orders and not have efficient and equal home delivery” of medicine and other essential goods. Now, facing a Presidential election that is likely to be heavily conducted through the mail, he said, “You need a governmental postal service to do that.”
Some of the problems with election by mail arise from the interplay between dated state election laws and slower mail-delivery times. Inspired by successes in places such as Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Utah, some states began expanding options for mail-in voting even before the pandemic. Other states, such as Ohio, quickly pivoted to mail in response to the virus. Yet too many of the mail-voting regimes did not adequately account for the fact that, during the Obama Administration, to cope with deteriorating finances caused by punitive congressional accounting mandates and a decline in traditional mail volumes, the Postal Service formally adopted standards allowing slower delivery of first-class mail—in some cases, taking up to five days.
Some states accept any ballot postmarked before Election Day, even if it arrives late. Yet a majority of states—including the Presidential battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Arizona—don’t count mailed ballots unless they arrive by Election Day. Voters who mail ballots close to Election Day in states without the postmark rule have to gamble on mail-delivery times. In Arizona’s 2018 election, more than three thousand votes were rejected because they turned up too late. Election officials in Georgia rejected more than seven thousand mailed ballots in the 2018 midterms, or three per cent of all the ballots sent by mail. In a close election, those are significant numbers. During this year’s primary season, “Mail delays meant that voters who did everything they were supposed to do” were nonetheless disenfranchised, Wendy Weiser, who directs the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, told me. “We saw a lot of ballots that were rejected that shouldn’t have been rejected, cast by eligible voters, because of [deadlines] that don’t make sense during the pandemic.”
This year, in battleground states that do not have a postmark rule, such as Pennsylvania, groups aligned with the Democratic Party are suing to insist that they adopt one. But that is not the only problem with state laws. Some states also contemplate implausibly short timelines to send out absentee ballots and receive completed ones. Georgia and Michigan, for example, assume that it will require as few as four days to mail out a requested absentee ballot and then receive a voter’s completed one.
Compounding all this, the new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, a Trump donor, recently mandated changes in postal operations, designed to cut back on overtime by postal workers, even if it means that some mail will not be delivered for another day. The changes are part of an efficiency drive, yet it is hard to divorce DeJoy’s management choices from his partisan profile or from Trump’s contempt for the Post Office; earlier this year, the President dismissed it as “a joke.” Trump has sought repeatedly to delegitimize the November vote by claiming falsely that mail voting is susceptible to significant fraud. His demagoguery and the appointment of DeJoy raise obvious questions about whether the management of voting by mail will be manipulated in service of Trump’s reëlection. House Democrats, led by Representative Carolyn Maloney, recently sent a letter about the reported operating changes to DeJoy, complaining that “increases in mail delivery timing would impair the ability of ballots to be received and counted in a timely manner—an unacceptable outcome for a free and fair election.” (The results in Maloney’s own primary, in June, have been delayed for more than a month, owing to problems in counting mailed-in ballots.)
“The question of the day is, Will the leadership of the Post Office—the Postmaster General—understand that this is not just about vote-by-mail but about the whole infrastructure of our voting system?” Wendy Fields, the executive director of the Democracy Initiative, a coalition of groups that advocates for voting rights, told me. “Is the Postmaster General going to do it proactively and be open to having a historic election that really embraces every single voter, or are we going to have more chaos?”
The Postal Service insists that it is ready and that neither the recent management reforms nor its chronically shaky finances—current forecasts are that it will run out of money sometime next year—will affect its performance in November. “The Postal Service is committed to delivering election mail in a timely manner,” Martha Johnson, a spokeswoman, told me in a prepared statement. She added, “The Postal Service’s financial condition is not going to impact our ability to process and deliver election and political mail”; the service, she said, could handle this fall’s expected increase in absentee ballots.
Justifiably, the Postal Service argues that it is not responsible for ill-conceived state election laws that put voter enfranchisement at risk by failing to account for well-established mail-delivery times,
even if these are slower than in the past. “The Post Office cannot substitute for the preparations that states have to make,” Mark Dimondstein, the president of the American Postal Workers Union, which represents more than two hundred thousand postal employees, told me.
The Postal Service recently sent a vote-by-mail kit to more than eleven thousand local election officials around the country, encouraging them to adopt best practices, such as electronic tracking technology—including its Intelligent Mail bar code—that allows mailed-in votes to be fully documented as they move to and from voters, which can make it easier to identify legal votes if there is a dispute. In the statement that Johnson sent me, the service also said that it would soon write again to election administrators in states “that have deadlines for requesting and casting mail-in ballots” that “appear to be incongruous with the Postal Service’s delivery standards.”
The surest way to prevent the vagaries of mail voting from distorting the outcome of the Presidential election would be for voters to deliver a landslide, so that disputed or rejected votes can’t change the result. It is certainly possible that the current lead in the polls that Joe Biden enjoys over Donald Trump will hold until November, or even increase, and will produce an indisputable Electoral College victory. But Presidential races often narrow after Labor Day, and the battle for control of the Senate, judging by the current polls, is likely to be a nail-biter; states that have had significant recent problems with mail voting, such as Georgia, could figure prominently in the outcome.
The Trump Presidency has tested the resiliency of many of the country’s democratic institutions: the courts, the press, the military, the civil service. It is a testament to how thoroughly Trump’s norm-shattering, autocratic leadership has permeated Washington that even the sleepy Post Office has become politicized and thrust into a position where its capacity for independence and professionalism is being tested, and will help determine the story of the United States’ most consequential election in generations.
For most of American history, the Postal Service was a direct arm of Presidential power and political-party patronage; it was only severed from the executive branch, to be funded by its own revenues, half a century ago. A goal of that restructuring was to “get rid of the patronage, the cronyism, and the corruption that may have existed in the old Post Office,” Dimondstein, the union president, told me. “We are concerned that this Administration is going back to that type of past.”
Steve Coll, a staff writer, is the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. His latest book is “Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Vote suppression has a long and ugly history in the U.S., and over the last two decades, it has resurfaced with a vengeance. Through research, lawsuits, and advocacy, the Brennan Center is fighting vote suppression on every front.
Why It Matters
Over the last 20 years, states have put barriers in front of the ballot box — imposing strict voter ID laws, cutting voting times, restricting registration, and purging voter rolls. These efforts, which received a boost when the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013, have kept significant numbers of eligible voters from the polls, hitting all Americans, but placing special burdens on racial minorities, poor people, and young and old voters.
The Brennan Center fights vote suppression on every front. Our lawsuits have blocked or weakened some of the worst suppression schemes, including Texas’s strict voter ID law. And our groundbreaking research has helped win the battle for public opinion. We have shown that voter fraud and illegal voting — often cited to justify regressive voting laws— aren’t a systematic and widespread occurrence; racial minorities are much more likely than whites to lack accepted voter ID; and that there is a growing threat of voter roll purges, which risk disenfranchising large numbers of eligible voters.
Protect Eligible Voters From Improper Purges of the Voter Rolls
Congress and the states should pass laws ensuring that eligible voters aren’t disenfranchised by improper purges.
Protect Against Deceptive Election Practices
Congress should pass the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, and states should also penalize and correct false information aimed at preventing voting or voter registration.
Work & Resources
Voter purges are an often-flawed process of cleaning up voter rolls by deleting names from registration lists. Done badly, they can prevent eligible people from casting a ballot that counts.July 20, 2018
- REPORTVoter Purges: The Risks in 2018February 27, 2018 Jonathan Brater
- REPORTThe Truth About Voter FraudNovember 9, 2007 Justin Levitt
- REPORTThe Challenge of Obtaining Voter IdentificationJuly 18, 2012 Keesha Gaskins, Sundeep Iyer
- COURT CASE TRACKERDonald J. Trump for President v. BoockvarJuly 29, 2020
- ARCHIVEChallenges to the Vote 2008June 10, 2020
- REPORTDirty Tricks: 9 Falsehoods that Could Undermine the 2020 ElectionJuly 30, 2020 Max Feldman
- EXPERT BRIEFThe New Voter SuppressionJanuary 16, 2020 Theodore R. Johnson, Max Feldman
- COURT CASE TRACKERBrennan Center and Protect Democracy v. Department of Justice et al.May 23, 2019
- TESTIMONYTestimony Before House Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil LibertiesMay 1, 2019 Myrna Pérez
The civil rights hero’s fight against voter suppression goes on, writes Brennan Center Fellow Andrew Cohen.July 27, 2020 Andrew Cohen
- 7 Years of Gutting Voting RightsJune 25, 2020 Myrna Pérez
- Voting and Protesting Go Hand-in-Hand — and There Are Barriers to BothJune 12, 2020 Kevin Morris
- How Trump Could Subvert the ElectionJune 10, 2020 Zachary Roth
- Trump Targets Michigan to Push His Latest Lie on Imagined Mail-in Voting FraudMay 22, 2020 Max Feldman