US Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has announced he is suspending cost-cutting operational changes until after the November elections, after days of widespread outcry and claims Donald Trump was deliberately slowing down the mail to help his re-election effort.
In a statement, DeJoy announced he was suspending the changes to “avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail”.
There have been reports of widespread mail delays across the US in recent weeks. United States Postal Service (USPS) workers and Democrats have blamed recent changes implemented by DeJoy, including cutting overtime and telling workers to leave the mail behind if it was going to delay them on routes.
DeJoy said the changes were needed to stabilize the cash-strapped agency, but many observers questioned why they were being implemented amid a global pandemic and months ahead of an unprecedented election in which the USPS is likely to play a big role in transporting ballots.
Trump said last week he opposed additional funding for USPS because it would make it easier to vote by mail.
In a statement on Tuesday, DeJoy, a major Republican donor without prior USPS experience, said post office hours would not change, mail processing facilities would not close and equipment, including mailboxes, would not be removed. He also said USPS would continue to approve overtime.
The announcement came after days of heavy scrutiny and on the day more than 20 states were set to file a lawsuit challenging the changes. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also recalled the House of Representatives to Washington, to deal with USPS funding.
There were protests outside DeJoy’s home last weekend and the postmaster general is set to appear before the Senate committee on homeland security and governmental affairs on Friday and the House oversight committee next week. The USPS inspector general is also investigating the changes.
USPS has always maintained it has the capacity to deliver election mail in the fall, but many experts expressed deep concern about whether the reported delays would affect the November election.
Ron Stroman, who stepped down as the number two official at USPS in June, told the Guardian last week that making operational changes just months before the election was “a high-risk proposition”.
A record number of Americans are expected to vote by mail this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many states require ballots to arrive at the office of election officials by the close of the polls on election day, regardless of when a voter puts them in the mail, to count. That means even a day-long delay in delivery could leave thousands disenfranchised.
USPS has long said that voters should put their ballots in the mail at least a week before election day in order to ensure they are counted. USPS recently sent letters to many states pointing out state laws that allow voters to request a ballot within a week of the election, increasing the risk of disenfranchisement.
State election officials have been encouraging voters to submit ballot requests now in order to guarantee as much time as possible to return them this fall. Many officials are also eyeing the expansion of official drop boxes, where voters can return their ballots without having to put them in the mail.
DeJoy also announced on Tuesday he was expanding an election mail taskforce with officials across the country.
“The Postal Service is ready today to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives this fall,” he said.
“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.”
Delivery of election mail, DeJoy said, was the agency’s “number one priority”.