At a critical turning point in the 2020 election, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a close Trump consigliere, has defied a federal court order meant to track down and deliver some 300,000 mailed-in ballots.
In turn, federal Judge Emmet G. Sullivan has warned DeJoy that “someone might have a price to pay” for the postal service’s refusal to sweep some 300,000 votes stranded in swing state post offices and deliver them to election boards for counting, where they may, in fact, make a critical difference in the outcome of this astounding election.
As the battle for the presidency boils down to uncounted mailed-in ballots, Trump’s deconstruction of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has taken center stage.
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The spread of the coronavirus long ago made it clear this election would be deeply impacted by tens of millions of mailed-in ballots.
Throughout his mercenary presidency, Trump has escalated his assaults on the Postal Service. Republicans of his corporate ilk have long wanted to dismantle the USPS, largely to destroy its powerful union.
They’ve also wanted to benefit huge private delivery companies like FedEx and UPS. DeJoy’s own business, XPO Logistics, recently landed a $5 million contract with the USPS. (DeJoy claims he has divested his stake in the company, but the reality is unclear.)
When the coronavirus hit, the Postal Service became a political football. Throughout the U.S., concerned citizens worried that suffering through long lines to finally arrive at cramped voting centers would expose them to potential illness. As lines backed up in Wisconsin for this past spring’s primary, reports of infection ran rampant. Some reports claim at least 71 deaths were the tragic result.
Since the 1980s, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, Washington State and Hawaii have automatically mailed ballots to registered voters. The systems work extremely well. After the fearsome warnings spread from Wisconsin’s primary, California, Nevada, and a number of other states jumped in.
In swing states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Republican legislatures demanded voters fill out applications online or by mail to get their ballots. The requirements can be complex and confusing, apparently aiming to restrict the popular vote.
As Trump assaulted the Postal Service (which he termed “a joke”), he openly feared being overwhelmed by absentee ballots. If everyone could easily vote by mail, he complained, Republicans would never get elected.
Trump himself has voted absentee since occupying the White House. (He officially lives in Florida.) But he complains vote by mail is somehow different. (It isn’t.)
So he threatened to sue Nevada when it announced it would join five other states in mailing ballots to all registered voters. Those votes are now being hotly disputed.
Trump also threatened to cut election board funding in Michigan for daring to mail ballots to all registered voters. “Michigan sends absentee ballot applications to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election,” he tweeted. “This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”
Through the summer, DeJoy brutally gutted much of the USPS’s highly evolved functional core, removing sorting machines, trashing long-established procedures, firing essential long-term personnel and removing postal drop boxes throughout the country.
As USPS revenues plummeted due to the virus, and as service deteriorated, Trump made little attempt to hide that the dismantlement was being done at least in part to undermine the service’s ability to deliver ballots that he thought (correctly) might threaten to end his presidency.
The USPS is one of the U.S.’s most cherished institutions, regularly listed as the public’s favorite government-related operation. Anger over its dismemberment has been palpable.
“In the Postal Service’s 240 years of delivering the mail, how can one person screw this up so fast?” Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D- Massachusetts) asked DeJoy amid angry congressional hearings in August. “What the heck are you doing?”
DeJoy told Congress his “cost-cutting” measures were necessary and offered assurances that the fall election’s ballots would be efficiently handled.
But very long delays prompted election protection advocates who’d supported voting by mail to push early voting or depositing ballots in official drop boxes.(Ohio and Texas responded by limiting drop boxes to one per county.)
Tennessee Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper told DeJoy: “For anyone thinking of voting absentee, the effect of your changes is to move Election Day from November 3 up to something like October 27.”
As Trump’s Republicans demanded ever-more stringent deadlines for receiving ballots at postal centers, the courts finally stepped in. As of November 3, USPS records in various states showed more than 300,000 absentee ballots had been received but had not gone back out to the election boards.
Such numbers could easily determine the presidency, especially in the swing states. (As of this morning, Michigan’s margin of victory for Joe Biden is around 35,000, Wisconsin’s around 20,000 and Nevada’s less than 10,000.)
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of Washington, D.C., had ordered on September 28 that the USPS cease its delivery cutbacks before the election.
On November 3, Judge Sullivan ordered DeJoy to sweep Postal Service facilities in a dozen key districts where those 300,000 ballots had been reported undelivered. Sullivan’s order included processing centers in Detroit, Houston, Atlanta and Philadelphia, as well as in central Pennsylvania, south Florida, South Carolina, Colorado, Wisconsin, Illinois, Arizona, Wyoming and Alabama.
Sullivan particularly focused on districts with low on-time delivery records, including Philadelphia and Detroit.
But DeJoy’s USPS proceeded to ignore Judge Sullivan’s ruling, citing “physical and operational limitations.” The service also complained that complying with the order might disrupt its regularly scheduled service.
Sullivan responded with fury. “I’m not pleased about this 11th-hour development last night,” he said in a hearing Wednesday. “Someone might have a price to pay.”
But the whereabouts of those 300,000 ballots remains a matter of dispute, as does their potential impact on the outcome of the presidential election.
That the ballots might be missing is “inaccurate,” says a USPS spokesman. The service took “extraordinary measures” to deliver those votes.
In a court filing, the USPS said that many ballots may have been delivered without being scanned. But if they were not marked as sent, zealous Republicans would be happy to toss them all as lacking a proper postmark or date stamp.
Some of the USPS’s harshest critics now tend to believe such problems may be overstated, and that the Postal Service — which has been reporting to Judge Sullivan — may be its own worst enemy. Vice’s Aaron Gordon downplays the situation as a product of the USPS’s own questionable reporting.
But Democratic governors in the key swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina have vowed to count all votes.
And in an election where razor-thin margins can make all the difference, and where Trump supporters — some of them armed — are demanding to “stop the count” (see Florida 2000), the questionable whereabouts and date stamping of 300,000 votes becomes a matter of life or death.
Thus, Judge Sullivan is not happy. DeJoy, he says, “is either going to have to be deposed or appear before me and testify under oath … about why some measures were not taken after the court issued its injunction.”
DeJoy might also be asked about how those missing mail-in ballots — which have trended heavily for Joe Biden — might affect the electoral fortunes of his boss and benefactor, Donald J. Trump.