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The USPS is struggling. Here’s what Idahoans need to know to vote by mail in November

Politics

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BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Idaho’s primary election, held in May, was the largest vote-by-mail effort the state had ever run.

Now, officials predict the state will handle even more absentee ballots for the general election on Nov. 3, but that’s not without concern. Mail delivery from the United States Postal Service has slowed in some areas of the country due to budget cuts, just as voters are opting to depend on it in increasing numbers to cast their votes this fall.

That means officials in Idaho are having the same conversations happening across the country: How do they ensure voters get their ballots in time to vote — and those ballots are returned in time to be counted?

WHAT’S HAPPENING WITH THE UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE?

The Postal Service has lost money for years and is on the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s “high-risk list,” which documents programs that need “broad reform” to succeed. The service “cannot fund its current level of services and financial obligations from its revenues,” according to the accountability office.

COVID-19 hit the Postal Service hard. Former Postmaster General Megan Brennan told House lawmakers that the pandemic caused a significant drop in mail, predicting coronavirus would cause the service to lose as much as $13 billion in revenue this year alone. While health officials do not believe COVID-19 can be spread from mail, the virus slowed deliveries as limited transportation made it hard to get mail to its destination. Last month, the Department of the Treasury announced it has reached an agreement with the Postal Service to loan the service up to $10 billion that is included in the CARES Act. That money covers operating expenses for the service if COVID-19 meant it could not otherwise pay them.

The Postal Service is also weighed down with obligations from a 2006 law that requires the USPS to pre-fund retiree health benefits for 75 years, requiring the service to “pay today for benefits that will not be paid out until some future date,” according to a 2010 report from the service. That’s a different burden than what other federal agencies and private sector companies use — those entities pay benefits as they are billed. That, combined with the expectation that the Postal Service’s most profitable product (first-class mail) will only become less profitable in the future, spells trouble for the service.

President Donald Trump asked Louis DeJoy, a Republican donor and a former logistics executive who has served as the new Postmaster General since June, to find a way to make the service more profitable. DeJoy cut overtime and other expenses to try to achieve that goal, the Associated Press reported, leading to reports from Philadelphia to Salt Lake City indicating mail delivery was delayed, sometimes preventing people from getting prescriptions and other critical items.

A spokesperson for the USPS declined to comment on whether sorting machines that handle Idaho mail have been removed in the past few months, instead pointing to a statement from DeJoy on Tuesday. In his statement, DeJoy said he would suspend his original cost-saving initiatives “to avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail” until after Election Day. He also promised that mail collection boxes and mail processing equipment would remain where it is, no mail processing facilities would be closed and that overtime would be approved as needed.

“Even with the challenges of keeping our employees and customers safe and healthy as they operate amid a pandemic, we will deliver the nation’s election mail on time and within our well-established service standards,” DeJoy said in the release. “The American public should know that this is our number one priority between now and election day.”

IS CONGRESS GOING TO FUND THE POSTAL SERVICE?

DeJoy’s announcement follows announcements from congressional leadership that he has been called upon to testify on mail delays from the Senate and the House of Representatives. He’ll testify Friday before the Senate and Monday before the House.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, has also called the chamber back into session to try to address the Postal Service. The House is set to vote Saturday on the “Delivering For America Act,” a bill from Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York. The bill would stop the USPS from implementing changes to levels of service and operations in place as of Jan. 1 of this year.

Nikki Wallace, a spokesperson for Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, told the Statesman that Simpson’s “utmost priority is to ensure a safe and fair election.”

“He is still reviewing the postal service proposal, but seeing as Republicans were not included in the process of drafting, has serious concerns this is partisan election-year politics and not a serious attempt at solving an issue,” his spokesperson told the Statesman.

Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch told the Statesman that they considered the Postal Service to be essential. Risch said that he would “continue to support efforts to reform the USPS” so it could one day be a self-sustaining program, while Crapo said that he planned to work with other senators “to ensure USPS services remain available and accessible.”

Idaho Rep. Russ Fulcher, also a Republican, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

I WANT TO VOTE BY MAIL IN NOVEMBER. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ME?

Elections officials at the state and local level agreed: If you plan to vote absentee this fall, request your ballot early and return it with plenty of time to spare.

USPS warned leaders in dozens of states, including Idaho, that based on their understanding of Idaho’s election laws, there was a concern that “ballots requested near the deadline under state law will not be returned by mail in time to be counted under your laws.”

Chad Houck, chief deputy secretary of state in Idaho, told the Statesman that his office isn’t concerned about that because they had a conference call with Postal Service leadership last week about any potential problems. He didn’t see any, he said, because Idaho uses first-class mail, considered the fastest and best option for election mail, to get elections materials to voters and back. In Idaho, the delivery standard for first-class mail (which is also what you would use when you put a standard stamp on an envelope and drop it in the mailbox) is two to five days.

Elections mail has special tags on it that allows it to get processed faster, Houck said. He added that many of the recommendations in the letter from the USPS are already in place in Idaho.

County clerks across the state are proposing legislation to be considered during the special legislative session next week that they say would help even more. If approved, Chelsea Carattini, spokesperson for the Ada County elections office, said that legislation would allow ballots to go out 30 days before the election rather than the standard 45. Although this would leave less time for voters to mail their ballots, it would give county election officials more time to prepare everyone’s ballots.

That legislation, backed in a Statesman guest opinion signed by 43 of the 44 Idaho county clerks (Camas County, the only county that did not sign, is in the process of appointing a new clerk), would also allow clerks to open and scan ballots before election night to help ensure results are available sooner.

Under current laws, however, some elections officials are a little concerned. In Canyon County, spokesperson Joe Decker told the Statesman the county has already received more than 26,000 absentee ballot requests for November. Canyon County officials are hoping that when the first round of ballots is sent out on Sept. 18, 45 days before the election, voters will have enough time to fill ballots out and mail them back, Decker said.

“Obviously, that time frame will be smaller for voters who decide to wait to submit their absentee ballot requests until the last minute,” Decker wrote in an email. “I believe the last day to request one for November will be Oct. 23, and we’d encourage any voters who wait that long to drop their voted ballots off at the elections office rather than mail them.”

Carattini said Ada County has received 88,340 absentee requests as of Tuesday morning and expects at least 170,000 ballots will be cast by mail.

“Working with the Postal Service, we regularly pick up ballots directly from the local distribution center rather than wait for them to be delivered, and we collect any remaining ballots from the post office right up to the 8 p.m. cutoff on Election Night,” she said in an email.

A lot of measures are being put into place to help voters return their ballots on time, but Houck said ultimately, if a vote arrives to the county clerk’s the day after the election on Nov. 4, it won’t be counted.

“It’s the same thing that has happened for the last dozen or more years,” he said. “If it’s not in the hands of the clerk by 8 p.m., statutorily, it is not a valid vote. We’re not changing the game here.”

HOW TO REQUEST AN ABSENTEE BALLOT

If you need to request an absentee ballot, you can visit the Idaho Secretary of State’s website and put in your information there. Ballot requests are closed until Aug. 26 due to the upcoming county elections, but once they reopen, any registered voter can request a ballot. (If you are not already registered, visit idahovotes.gov to do so.) You can also request your ballot by using the paper form and submitting it to your county clerk’s office.

If you complete your ballot and aren’t sure it will get to the county clerk’s office on time, Houck said that each clerk’s office will have a dropbox out front where voters can deposit ballots.

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