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Pennsylvania to voters: Don’t panic about your mail ballot

As Trump openly maneuvered to slow down the post office and hamper mail voting for his political benefit, Pennsylvania’s top elections official tried to stave off worry.

A voter drops their mail ballot into a ball drop box outside Philadelphia City Hall on May 28, 2020.
A voter drops their mail ballot into a ball drop box outside Philadelphia City Hall on May 28, 2020.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

As President Donald Trump openly maneuvers to slow down the post office and hamper mail voting for his political benefit, Pennsylvania’s top elections official tried to stave off worry Friday by saying she has “great confidence” in the state’s vote-by-mail system.

State and county elections officials “are working day and night to make sure that every eligible Pennsylvanian’s vote is counted in November, no matter whether they vote by mail or they vote in person,” Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar told reporters.

Her comments came as new election fears spiked after the U.S. Postal Service warned all 50 states that it could not guarantee mail ballots will be delivered in time to meet state deadlines. The Postal Service, a longtime target of Trump’s, is struggling with spending cuts and other changes implemented by the new postmaster general, a Trump campaign donor. Those changes have hampered delivery just as huge numbers of voters, a majority of them Democrats, turn to mail voting to avoid polling places during the coronavirus pandemic.

The newly disclosed USPS letters to states raised the prospect that millions of people might not have their votes counted, even if they follow state guidelines. Trump, trailing Joe Biden in public opinion polls, made explicit this week that he is hoping to block expansion of mail voting.

Amid a pandemic that has forced people to avoid crowds, the methods of voting have become one of the central fights in a presidential election that could be decided by a small number of votes in a handful of states, including Pennsylvania.

Trump, who uses mail voting himself and just this week requested his ballot, has falsely claimed that it is susceptible to widespread fraud. Mail voting has traditionally been used by people in both parties. But after months of Trump’s attacks, far more Democrats than Republicans are relying on the method in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

With delivery delays already widespread, Boockvar and other officials in Pennsylvania urged voters to apply for mail ballots early and return them quickly, either by mail or in person at county election offices.

“This is the first time that the Postal Service directly told us that what we had all been able to rely on up to this point, the typical one- to three-day turnaround for mail, that we could no longer rely on that,” she said.

The Postal Service’s problems and their potential impact on the election have put Boockvar and other officials in a difficult position; they are trying to address flaws in the electoral system without delegitimizing it and damaging public confidence. So even as they raise alarm about mail delivery disenfranchising voters and advocate for changes to the system, they also want to calm public fears to prevent mistrust and chaos.

New Jersey, which also received a similar letter from the Postal Service, said Friday that its election will be conducted mostly by mail.

Lisa Deeley, chair of the Philadelphia Board of City Commissioners, which oversees elections, said voters should apply for mail ballots now if they want to be assured of receiving and sending them back before the Nov. 3 election. “Don’t wait,” Deeley said.

She said deadlines to apply for ballots set by state law are “not practical” and have “never been practical,” even as she also expressed “total confidence” in the mail system.

But voters appear shaken.

Some voters called the city commissioners on Friday to cancel their mail ballot applications, Deeley said. Officials in Bucks and Montgomery Counties have also heard from voters in recent days worried about mail delays.

”We’ve had people that are looking to change their mind and cancel their ballot, but we’re taking the time to explain to them … there’s no need to panic right now,” Deeley said.

The reassurances from Boockvar and Deeley came a day after the Pennsylvania Department of State painted a more dire picture in a state Supreme Court filing.

The letter from the Postal Service “makes the threat to Pennsylvanians’ right to vote unmistakably clear and concrete,” the filing said. “To state it simply: voters who apply for mail-in ballots in the last week of the application period and return their completed ballot by mail will, through no fault of their own, likely be disenfranchised.”

The department is asking the court to order that ballots be counted as long as they are received within three days of Election Day and there is no proof (such as a postmark) that they were mailed after Election Day.

The dispute over mail voting has grown so intense it prompted a foray Friday from former President Barack Obama, who rarely criticizes Trump directly in public.

“What we’ve seen in a way that is unique to modern political history is a president who is explicit in trying to discourage people from voting,” Obama said during a podcast. “What we’ve never seen before is a president say, ‘I’m going to try to actively kneecap the Postal Service to [discourage] voting and I will be explicit about the reason I’m doing it.’”

Obama’s comments came after Trump, speaking to Fox Business Network on Thursday, said he was opposing new funding sought by Democrats for the post office because “they need that money in order to make the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots.”

“But if they don’t get [it], that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it,” Trump said.

There is no evidence of widespread mail voting fraud, including in the five states that vote almost entirely by mail. Trump has argued that high “levels of voting” would hurt Republicans, but Utah, a state dominated by the GOP, almost entirely uses mail ballots.

Trump said Friday he would be open to more post office funding if he gets other concessions from Democrats on a stalled coronavirus economic relief bill.

Meanwhile, the Postal Service continued taking steps that could slow mail delivery.

In Oregon, the Postal Service confirmed to Willamette Week that some mailboxes had recently been removed. A spokesperson said that it was because of “declining mail volume” and that the agency is only removing mailboxes where there were already multiple boxes stationed next to each other.

Ray Daiutolo Sr., USPS spokesperson for the Philadelphia area, saidmailboxes here have not been removed due to low volume, but that there “may have been a handful of locations with two boxes that we dropped down to one.”

Daiutolo, in an email, said he did not know the total or location of those that were removed, but said there were “not many.”

-Staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.