Phillip Meylan - Sep 1, 2020

Deciphering the News About the U.S. Postal Service

Though you may have experienced shortages or delays in mail recently, you’ve probably also seen more articles about the mail than you know what to do with. From Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s recent hearings, to long-running worries about USPS funding, to delayed delivery of mailed goods, to worries about the upcoming election, there’s been no shortage of coverage about one of the country’s most beloved and undercounted government agencies. In the latest round of sparring, the House Oversight Committee announced on Monday its intention to subpoena DeJoy for withholding documents about the recent delay in mail delivery, his selection process, and his communications with President Trump.  

The Factual set out this week to round up the latest on the USPS and clarify key issues using the most credible stories about the topic from across the political spectrum. Our key takeaways:

  1. DeJoy’s reforms at the USPS are meant to shore up the long-ailing agency, but his changes have led to a slowdown in mail delivery. This comes at a time when mail delivery and security are top concerns for citizens about to vote in a general election and when low-cost shipping is crucial for small businesses.

  2. Despite accusations of a plot by Trump to hinder the USPS before the election, and albeit suspicious timing, there’s not much hard evidence that the changes are likely to impact the delivery of mail-in ballots — or are intended to do so. Though industry experts and long-running mail policies make such an outcome seem highly unlikely — the prospect remains highly worrying for many Americans.

The Factual’s algorithm analyzes 10,000 articles or more a day to find the most credible news articles from across the political spectrum. This analysis uses 39 articles from 26 news sources to explore what’s going on with the USPS. To read more about how The Factual’s algorithm, visit our How It Works page. The appendix at the end of this article shows the scores for all articles used to inform this analysis. 



Why Are People Worried About the Mail?

Mail delivery has started to experience serious and widespread delays immediately following a series of policy changes enacted by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in July. The impacts have been felt widely across the country. Seniors and veterans have missed out on the timely delivery of medications that routinely arrive by mail — as many as 14 million Americans may not receive needed medication on time. Poultry farmers that have used the mail to deliver baby chicks since 1918 have seen chicks die by the thousands due to delays in service. Small businesses that have relied on the competitive postage rates of USPS have seen packages go late or undelivered; their business models may entirely collapse if they are forced to use private shipping methods such as UPS and FedEx.

The decline in processing time (orange line) is what is driving the delays in mail delivery. Source: USPS. 

The impacts are geographically diverse as well. Across postal delivery regions where first-class mail tends to arrive on-time 90% of the time or more, there has been double-digit declines in the percentage of mail delivered on time, with sub-areas like Northern Ohio falling to just 68%. In aggregate, the national percentage of on-time delivery declined from 91% to 84%. Meanwhile, reports have emerged of mailing locations overrun with packages of rotting fruit, poultry, and other perishable products — all the product of new operational changes that seem to have reduced the USPS’s ability to deliver mail on time. DeJoy has acknowledged the delays and assumed at least some of the blame. 

This downturn coincided with remarks from President Trump that expressed his distrust of mail-in ballots and preference for the postal service not to receive additional funding that would make it easier for more people to vote by mail: “They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots . . . If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.” In the context of a heated national election just weeks away in which well over a third of registered voters are expected to vote by mail, the consequences of potential politically-motivated meddling with the postal service have not been not lost on civil society or Trump’s political opponents.

“It was after DeJoy got to work that the mail delays began, according to multiple postal service-related union leaders and trade groups interviewed by Recode.” - Vox

Driving these concerns is that DeJoy appears to be a politically-motivated appointment (common in both Republican and Democratic administrations) and a large donor to the Republican Party and Trump’s campaign. The timing of Trump’s remarks with the rapid deterioration in the postal service gave rise to concern that these events were in fact connected and intentional, rather than coincidental and untargeted, and could have enormous impact on an upcoming election. Coupled with the more mundane changes to an essential service for many Americans, understanding exactly what is going on with the postal service has become of vital importance.

DeJoy’s Reforms to the USPS

DeJoy inherited an already ailing government agency burdened by shifting patterns of demand (total mail volume has declined by roughly 16% since 2010 ) and unrealistic financial burdens (USPS must pre-fund its post-retirement healthcare costs for 75 years into the future, a cost imposed on no other government agency). Covid-19 has placed further pressure on the agency. Approximately 40,000 of its 600,000 employees have been placed under quarantine since the pandemic started. A further decline in the mailing of letters has thankfully been offset by a surge in packages, an economic boost that looks likely to keep the USPS solvent into 2021. 

Chronic loss-making has driven conservatives’ criticism of wasteful government spending and led to demands for privatization. Liberal perceptions have it that the agency serves as critical connective sinew that delivers essential services to places the private sector would leave behind. An experienced businessman, DeJoy began as postmaster general in June and set out to curb losses and reform the system.

Among his changes, the most notable have focused on:

  • Overtime hours and operational changes:
    Many of the mail delays experienced around the country are likely related to DeJoy’s rules about limiting overtime and additional daily trips. For a long time, on-time mail delivery has been driven in large part by long-hours and additional daily trips by mail carriers when the mail for a specific route couldn’t be carried in one trip. These limitations, along with shortened post office hours, are pretty clearly connected to mail delays across the country.
  • Mail sorting machines: These changes sound ominous, especially in the face of a glut of election-related mail, but are not particularly out of the ordinary. Given the declining trends in mail, the USPS regularly takes such machines out of service, though this year’s declines are larger than normal — equivalent to about 13% of the USPS’s total sorting capacity (USPS removed 3% in 2018 and 5% in 2019).
  • Removal of public mailboxes: Mailbox removals are also fairly normal for the postal service, given the declining trends in mail volume. Viral images of box removals, both legitimate and years-old, stoked concerns that such changes would negatively impact the forthcoming election. DeJoy testified that about 700 boxes have been removed under his tenure and that 35,000 have been removed in the last decade (roughly 3,500 a year).
  • Mail truck changes: Part of DeJoy’s changes have been to enforce strict departure times for the larger mail carrier trucks that traverse the nation. The effort, meant to keep the agency moving on schedule, has led to perverse outcomes such as these trucks traveling completely empty.

These changes have been decried publicly by Democrats (including Joe Biden), civil society organizations, and USPS employees. At least 20 states have sued DeJoy over the changes. And malicious or not, the changes have pretty clearly led to a widespread impacts on the USPS’s ability to deliver mail in a timely manner — all at a time when Americans are relying on it in several ways.

Will DeJoy’s Changes Influence the Election?

Through two testimonies, DeJoy was adamant that no further changes would be made prior to the elections and insisted that the USPS is highly confident in delivering mail-in ballots on time. Many are quick to point out that the anticipated surge in ballot-related mail is really just a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of the 471 million pieces of mail the USPS deals with daily. Additionally, USPS workers assign utmost priority to ballot-related mail, and DeJoy has indicated that they will even give ballots priority over first-class mail if needed. 

“We will deploy processes and procedures that advances any election mail, in some cases ahead of first class mail.” - Postmaster DeJoy

A series of letters sent out by the USPS to 46 states prior to the election warned of the danger of ballots not being delivered on time, creating further concern for election watchers. However, the letters appear to be more of a matter of routine, impressing the importance of having voting deadlines that provide the USPS plenty of time to do their job, given past examples of sudden gluts of ballot related mail. These concerns don’t appear to be driven by DeJoy’s changes.


But these formal assurances will do little to settle the nerves of those concerned with the upcoming election. In the context of the doubt President Trump has cast on mail-in ballots and the heated nature of the election, there is little room for error. Were ballots not to arrive on time, it could have outsized impacts in battleground states and cast doubt on close results. And reports from some USPS workers suggest that issues like the recently removed sorting machines could hinder the postal service’s ability to sort the mail efficiently in the weeks to come.

The reality of mail delivery at present lies in stark contrast to DeJoy’s reassurances, even if the election is still two months away. If the USPS is struggling to deliver the mail on time right now, how can Americans be sure the delivery of ballots in a few weeks will be any different? The botched delivery of significant numbers of ballots would be hugely problematic for incumbents, challengers, and American democracy at large.

The Road Ahead for the USPS

Like so much else, the long-term trajectory of the USPS relies on the choices made in the months ahead. Democrats and Republicans alike agree that the agency is in urgent need of reform, but will likely target different routes to do so, ultimately agreeing on some middle path. For the time being, that path is likely to involve another tranche of funding to paper over the cracks for the immediate future (a $25 billion bill was passed in the House, with the support of 26 Republicans, but is not expected to pass in the Senate; President Trump has sent mixed messages about whether he would sign such a bill). Longer-term changes, such as how to deal with the USPS’s high employment costs and the battle over privatization, will likely require political breathing space and clear-sightedness that the Covid-19 pandemic seems unlikely to provide.

Recent headlines have made big waves, and the ingredients for a mail-driven election calamity are present, yet the chef — Postmaster DeJoy — is insistent that calamity is not on the menu. While the prevailing notion on the right is that this is much ado about nothing, on the left, alarm bells continue to ring. For now, voters, like the USPS, are left to muddle through. 

Appendix:

Below is a list of the articles used to inform this analysis.

Title

Publisher

Political Bias

Author

Credibility Grade

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy donated big to GOP, Trump — his wife got ambassador post

Salon

Left

Roger Sollenberger

90%

Chicks, cockroaches, crickets and frogs: How mail delays are affecting the live animal trade

Washington Post

Moderate Left

Christopher Ingraham

89%

How Much Should You Panic Over the U.S. Postal Service?

Slate

Left

Jordan Weissmann, Aaron Mak

86%

Postal Service woes attributed to long-running problems by industry analysts

Washington Examiner

Moderate Right

Nihal Krishan

86%

Small businesses say they're suffering mail delivery delays

Washington Examiner

Moderate Right

Jay Heflin

86%

House Approves $25 Billion Bill to Fund US Postal Service

Courthouse News Service

Center

Brandi Buchman

85%

How the Postal Service became a flashpoint ahead of the 2020 election

ABC News

Moderate Left

Catherine Thorbecke

85%

A reality-based look at Trump and the post office

Washington Examiner

Moderate Right

Byron York

84%

America Is Going To Vote by Mail. We're Not Ready.

Reason

Moderate Right

Eric Boehm

84%

Democrats push for $25 billion for the Postal Service. The White House says it will reject it.

Vox

Left

Riley Beggin

84%

The tumultuous history of the U.S. Postal Service—and its constant fight for survival

National Geographic

Center

Boyce Upholt

84%

U.S. Mail Delays Slow Delivery of Medicines

New York Times

Moderate Left

Reed Abelson

83%

USPS Workers Concerned New Policies WIll Pave the Way to Privitization

The Intercept

Left

Rachel M. Cohen

83%

What Was Missing from the Postmaster General’s Senate Testimony

New Yorker

Left

Steve Coll

82%

Fact check: Voters should request ballots 2 weeks early, but mail isn't intentionally slow

USA Today

Moderate Left

Ella Lee

81%

Miami postal workers union chief: Yes, your mail is being delayed. Here’s why

Miami Herald

Moderate Left

Rob Wile

80%

Rats reported feeding on packages of rotted fruit and meat as postmaster general's cutbacks unleash chaos at California's mail centers

Business Insider

Moderate Left

Sophia Ankel

80%

Leaked email: US Postal Service instructs workers “not to reconnect” sorting machines

Salon

Left

Igor Derysh

80%

Postal Service defends removing mailboxes after stack of discards goes viral

The Hill

Moderate Left

Morgan Gstalter

79%

Trump Opposes Postal Service Funding But Says He'd Sign Bill Including It

NPR

Moderate Left

Barbara Sprunt, Alana Wise

79%

Trump explicitly links mail-in voting and his opposition to post-office financial relief

MarketWatch

Center

Associated Press

77%

Get your hands off my mail': Groups rally across the Valley in support of USPS

AZ Central

Moderate Right

BrieAnna J. Frank

76%

Postmaster General Admits Knowing ‘Very Little’ About Postage, Refuses To Reverse USPS Changes In Testy House Hearing

Forbes

Moderate Right

Alison Durkee

76%

What's wrong with the mail

Vox | Recode

Moderate Left

Adam Clarke Estes

76%

House committee to subpoena Postmaster General DeJoy over withholding documents from Congress

USA Today

Moderate Left

Nicholas Wu

75%

New York AG Files Multistate Lawsuit, Joins More Than 20 States Suing Postal Service Over DeJoy’s Changes

Washington Post

Moderate Right

Alison Durkee

72%

Public Holds Broadly Favorable Views of Many Federal Agencies, Including CDC and HHS

Pew Research Center

Center

N/A

71%

How Congress Manufactured a Postal Crisis — And How to Fix it

Institute for Policy Studies

Left

Sarah Anderson, Scott Clinger, Brian Wakamo

71%

In House testimony, DeJoy calls Trump’s comments about mail-in voting ‘not helpful.’

New York Times

Moderate Left

Catie Edmondson, Nicholas Fandos, Neil Vigdor

70%

Under siege from Trump, U.S. Postal Service finds surprising financial upside in pandemic

Washington Post

Moderate Left

Jacob Bogage

70%

Here’s why the Postal Service wanted to remove hundreds of mail-sorting machines

Washington Post

Moderate Left

Jacob Bogage, Christopher Ingraham

69%

Post Office Expects $9 Billion Loss This Year, Will Prioritize Mail-in Ballots Before Election Day

Reason

Moderate Right

Eric Boehm

69%

USPS Plans to Slash Hours at Many Post Offices, Hoping to Save A Buck

Vice News

Left

Aaron Gordon

69%

Biden voters twice as likely than Trump supporters to vote by mail, survey finds

USA Today

Moderate Left

Joey Garrison

69%

Mail carriers deliver medicine and mail till dark, thanks to COVID-19

Tampa Bay Times

Moderate Left

Rose Wong

67%

Dems hit House Republican for denying USPS delays

Fox News

Right

Caitlin McFall

65%

6 states sue USPS saying changes have harmed ability to conduct 'free and fair elections'

Fox News

Right

Marissa Schultz

63%

USPS delays endanger 14M who won’t get medications on time

Fox News

Right

Vandana Rambaran

60%

Postal trucks sometimes travel across country - with no mail - after USPS cuts

NewsChannel5 Nashville

N/A

Ben Hall, Kevin Wisniewski

N/A

As USPS delays hit veterans' mail-order prescriptions, VA works to mitigate medication waits

ConnectingVets

N/A

Abbie Bennett

N/A

 

Written by Phillip Meylan

Phillip is a writer, editor, and researcher. Before completing his MSc in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2019, he worked as an editor and content strategist for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. When he’s not working, you can find him playing soccer, hiking, or cooking.

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