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The Question at the Heart of the Postal Service Crisis

The new postmaster general tried to assure senators that the USPS could handle the election, even as he acknowledged that his changes have slowed down the mail.

U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee / Getty

Yes, the mail really has slowed down recently. No, the delays are not part of a dastardly plot to steal the election on behalf of President Donald Trump.

That was the two-pronged message that Louis DeJoy, the new postmaster general, delivered this morning to the Senate—and, by extension, American voters—as he confronted a national uproar over whether the Postal Service can, and will, handle a surge in mail-in balloting this fall.

“The Postal Service will deliver every ballot and process every ballot in time,” DeJoy testified to the Homeland Security Committee, in one of several assurances he offered. “I think the American people can feel comfortable that the Postal Service will deliver on this election,” he added. Specifically, DeJoy promised that the agency would still expedite election mail as it has in the past and would not force states to pay higher prices to process ballots. “We will scour every plant each night leading up to Election Day,” he promised Senator Mitt Romney of Utah.

DeJoy’s promises—indeed, merely his willingness to appear voluntarily before Congress—could go a long way toward dispelling charges by many Democrats that the longtime GOP donor is in cahoots with Trump and deliberately sabotaging the Postal Service ahead of an election that the president says will be “rigged” by mail-in balloting. But if DeJoy managed to assuage concerns about the intent of the changes he has brought to the Postal Service, he was less effective in salving worries about their implementation or consequences. And that’s why Democrats emerged from today’s two-hour hearing with scarcely more confidence in DeJoy’s leadership than when the hearing started.

The former logistics executive happily acknowledged that soon after taking office in June, he ordered changes to force postal workers nationwide to adhere to the agency’s scheduled timetables. Trucks would now leave on time, and extra trips would be reduced, even if that meant mail had to wait an extra day for delivery. The move, he said, would save more than $1 billion for the cash-strapped Postal Service while simultaneously improving service for customers—a win-win. But DeJoy conceded today that, so far, service hasn’t improved—instead, it’s gotten worse, slowing down more than he anticipated. The trucks may be leaving on time, but the mail is arriving later.

“Unfortunately, some mail processing was not fully aligned with the established schedule,” he said. “We did have some delays in the mail, and our recovery process should have been a few days, and it turned into a few weeks.”

The delays have led to a flood of complaints from around the country, both in urban centers dominated by Democrats and in rural areas where the population is predominantly Republican. Senators in each party this morning told DeJoy stories of packages that didn’t arrive for days, and of elderly constituents who missed deliveries of medication. Yet while DeJoy said that on-time delivery rates are improving, he couldn’t offer guarantees about when the problems caused by his changes would be resolved. “We are working here feverishly to get the system running,” he said. “We all feel bad about the level of service.”

Democrats were taken aback by other responses as well. DeJoy suggested that he had conducted no analysis of what impact his operational changes would have on key postal customer bases, such as seniors and military veterans. And while DeJoy has suspended changes to operations ahead of the election, he is not reversing the new mandates on schedule adherence, nor will he order the reinstallation of sorting machines that have been removed or dismantled, raising alarms in important election battlegrounds, such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and New Hampshire, where delays have been pronounced. Finally, even as DeJoy voiced confidence in the Postal Service’s election operations, he confirmed issues that could disproportionately affect Democratic constituencies in key states: In cities such as Philadelphia and Detroit, which have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, DeJoy said, the virus’s “intimidation” of postal workers has led to much higher rates of absences. In Philadelphia alone, absences have contributed to a drop in nearly one-quarter of the city’s carrier routes.

At the heart of the turmoil at the Postal Service is not one crisis of confidence but two. The first is a president who is actively and openly trying to undermine voting by mail because he thinks—falsely—that it is fraudulent. “I’m assuming that you have been truthful,” Romney told DeJoy at one point, “so I can imagine how frustrating it is to be accused of political motives in your responsibility. At the same time, you can understand that there have been reasons for people to think that you and your colleagues are purposefully acting to suppress voting, or that you will try to prevent ballots from being counted.”

The second is DeJoy himself, who has no experience with the agency but who has nonetheless come in and made sweeping changes during a global pandemic and ahead of a presidential election. DeJoy insisted that some of the incidents that have caused alarm in recent days—such as the removal of collection boxes or the dismantling of sorting machines—either are routine supply-and-demand moves or will have no “significant” impact on the agency’s capacity. But Democrats in particular are reluctant to believe him, both because of his ties to Trump and because DeJoy is so new to the Postal Service and his assurances are being contradicted by postal employees who say the lack of sorting machines is slowing down service.

The question the agency’s struggles raise is also a familiar one in the Trump presidency: Are they the result of malice, or simple incompetence? DeJoy wants the public to trust that mail service will bounce back soon and that the election won’t be affected. “We found these imbalances, and we didn’t do as great as a job in covering for that as we should have,” he told the senators. “But we will.”

Democrats had entered this morning’s hearing suspecting that the new postmaster general was lying to them, and to the public. Their worry at the end of it was that he was wrong. But if the mail delays caused by DeJoy’s changes precipitate an election nightmare in November, the answer won’t make much of a difference.