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Philly mail delays are raising alarms about the 2020 election: ‘This is a huge problem’

Major mail delivery problems in the Philadelphia region are raising alarm that people will be disenfranchised because they will not receive or return their ballots in time.

Bucks County elections staff process mail ballots on June 2 primary election day.
Bucks County elections staff process mail ballots on June 2 primary election day.Read moreBucks County Commissioners

Voting by mail doesn’t work without the “mail” part.

Major mail delivery problems in the Philadelphia region are raising alarms that people will be disenfranchised because they will not receive or return their ballots in time — or will be deterred from even trying to vote by mail because they don’t trust the post office. It’s even more worrying now, elections officials and experts said, because voting by mail is the safest option during the coronavirus pandemic, and people may be unwilling or unable to take the risk of voting in person.

“I will definitely vote, but I seriously doubt that I will use the mail for it because of the delays,” said Renee Glenn, an Overbrook resident who went more than a week without mail last month.

Glenn, 60, has heart and lung problems that make her highly vulnerable to the coronavirus. The lifelong Democrat voted in person for the June 2 primary, and planned to vote by mail for the first time this fall because of the pandemic. But now she won’t risk her ballot getting lost or not delivered on time.

“It’s just too important of an election to take any chances,” she said.

Voting by mail already posed significant logistical challenges this year. A new state law enacted last year made this the first year any voter can do so, but the pandemic has fueled a huge wave of mail voting across the country, including in Pennsylvania: Just over half of all votes were cast by mail in the primary, a huge jump from about 5% in past elections. Turnout in November’s election will likely be more than double the primary, meaning there could be several million ballots sent through the mail.

Pennsylvania also has tight mail ballot deadlines, and elections officials struggled in the primary to keep up with the massive surge in demand. Officials later identified mail delivery delays as one of the biggest threats to the general election.

» READ MORE: Mail delays are frustrating Philly residents, and a short-staffed Postal Service is struggling to keep up

That threat — and the risk of disenfranchisement — only increases as mail service deteriorates. And delivery schedules have been upended since the primary, with policy changes from the new postmaster general, who is also a campaign donor to President Donald Trump, exacerbating staffing shortages and leading to routes sometimes going completely undelivered.

“This is a huge problem. I think we need to be extremely concerned,” said Donnell Drinks, who heads election protection efforts for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Voting by mail is more than just a convenience for some voters, Drinks said, such as those with disabilities or who are at heightened coronavirus risk: “You’re eliminating that segment of the population [through] the inadequacy of the mail delivery.”

Philadelphia elections officials are also sounding the alarm.

“It’s hard to overstate how important the Postal Service is to making this thing work,” said Al Schmidt, one of the three Philadelphia city commissioners, who run elections.

Lisa Deeley, chair of the commissioners, said last week that the Postal Service recommended to them that voters apply for mail ballots at least 15 days before Election Day and put their ballots in the mail at least a week beforehand.

But state law permits voters to do both closer to the election, and the disconnect between what the law allows and what the post office can accommodate could lead to ballots getting rejected.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania’s mail ballot problems kept tens of thousands from voting in a pandemic primary

All across the Philadelphia region, voters reported long waits for ballots and uneven delivery during the primary, such as a husband and wife putting their ballots in the mail together only for them to arrive days apart.

“We mailed out ballots to people and some people it made it the next day, and some people it took four or five days,” Schmidt said. “And I don’t really have an explanation for that.”

That was before Louis DeJoy, a Republican fund-raiser with no postal experience, was appointed postmaster general in June, just as Trump ramped up his false attacks that mail voting is susceptible to widespread fraud.

DeJoy enacted policies that eliminate overtime, order carriers to leave mail behind to speed up their workdays, and slash post office hours.

“I’m deeply concerned about the leadership shift that has happened at the top of the agency,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “We have a postmaster general who has no experience inside the Postal Service. The policy changes that we’re seeing under DeJoy are also raising concerns.”

DeJoy has defended his policy changes as meant to cut costs and make the agency more efficient. Trump has for years attacked the Postal Service, saying it is too favorable to large companies and especially Amazon. The Postal Service also faces crippling debt, largely due to a 2006 law requiring the agency to pay billions in pre-funding retirees’ health benefits.

The new policies — coupled with staffing shortages from previous budget cuts, coronavirus absences, and a massive influx of parcels as more people shop online — are causing mail to pile up in offices, often unscanned, and leaving entire routes undelivered for days.

“I am definitely more likely to try and drop off my mail-in ballot or vote in person,” said Victoria Harris, 33, of Garden Court, who had gone a week without mail as of Thursday. “Because of the delays in the mail, and this is way too important to leave it up to whatever happens.”

Members of Congress representing Philadelphia and the city’s election commissioners said they are receiving hundreds of calls and emails from concerned constituents. Last month, the offices of Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Democrat who represents Northeast Philadelphia, received 345 USPS-related calls, more than 20 times the 17 calls received last July.

» READ MORE: Philly lawmakers are warning of an ‘unmitigated disaster’ as post office problems lead to big mail delays

To fix mail problems, lawmakers and advocacy groups said, the post office needs more funding and a variety of policy changes. States also need funding to better implement vote-by-mail, Clarke said, such as setting up drop boxes where voters can hand-deliver their ballots instead of mailing them back. The Trump campaign is suing Pennsylvania in an attempt to prohibit the use of drop boxes.

In the meantime, Boyle and other lawmakers urged people to not be discouraged and said they themselves would still vote by mail — without waiting too late to do so.

“Just do it early,” said Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Democrat whose Delaware County district also includes part of South Philadelphia. “This is not an election to wait until the last minute and procrastinate.”

Some people who had positive experiences voting by mail in the primary plan to do so again. Despite experiencing three-week mail delays in his Overbrook neighborhood, Donald Bullock, 54, said he plans to vote by mail again because he believes mail ballots will be handled securely.

“If it worked the first time I did it,” said Bullock, a Democrat, “I know it’s going to work again.”