U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley said Friday that President Donald Trump is deliberately trying to sabotage the election during the COVID-19 pandemic by undercutting the United States Postal Service, a ‘diabolical’ political act they said also puts vulnerable Americans who rely on prescription medicine via the mail at risk of severe illness or even death.
Oregon’s two Democratic senators spoke in front of the Sellwood post office branch Friday, stepping up their critique of what they say are calculating and extensive steps by the Trump administration – through policy changes, overt rhetoric and disinterest in passing the latest COVID-19 relief bill – to undermine one of the nation’s oldest institutions.
A pilot program call “Expedited to Street” that the postal service rolled out last month in several Portland-area zip codes, Eugene, Tigard, Medford, Woodburn and other locations nationwide limits the amount of time workers have each morning to sort mail, instead putting carriers out on the street before mail is sorted.
It has had the effect of delaying how long it takes mail to reach affected Oregonians, and Portland-area postal workers said local mail that would normally have arrived the next day now may now take three times that long to arrive.
The government described the pilot program as a way to get carriers on the streets sooner. The net effect is mail sits longer unsorted.
Daniel Cortez, a union official representing mail clerks, said post offices have a “massive built-in delay right now” because of that policy and the compounding effect of previous regulatory changes in 2012 and 2015 that “slowly eroded” the agency’s ability to deliver first class mail on time.
Cortez said that in the past, workers would frequently clock overtime because it was important to get mail to customers as soon as possible. That’s no longer the case, he said.
“If you mailed a letter in Portland to another address in Portland you could almost always be assured it would get there the next day,” Cortez said of the situation a decade ago. “Now it takes two to three days, and that’s locally.”
Cortez said he routinely sees mail sent from one Portland post office facility to another arrive up to a week later.
When asked what that means for the coming election and when people should mail in their own ballot, Cortez said he wouldn’t wait. When he receives his ballot, “I’m going to mail it the next day probably. I’m not going to take a chance,” he said.
“I have every faith in the letter carriers and the postal workers and the mail handlers and those of us working on the frontlines to do everything we can to move people’s mail, but if we are instructed to leave the mail sitting, then that’s what we have to do.” Cortez added.
Portland voters were more dependent on the postal service to get their ballots to election offices in last week’s election, with 65% of ballots coming through the mail compared to the historic rate of 45%. Oregonians no longer have to pay postage to mail their ballots and the coronavirus risk of walking to one’s own mailbox to set out a ballot is nil.
Cortez’ and the senators’ comments came the day after the Postal Service confirmed it had removed dozens of its mailboxes across Eugene and a handful in Portland. Reports of similar actions in Montana, New York City and Ohio spread Friday. The Postal Service said it removed the boxes in Oregon because of a lack of mail.
But Oregon’s senators said those changes, combined with the Postal Service blocking its longstanding practice of delivering mail through authorized overtime, leaving mail unsorted or undelivered and Trump’s proposal to raise rates on vote-by-mail states’ ballots to make voting more expensive for states, are troubling.
“Our authoritarian-inclined president is attacking the very foundation of our Republic,” Merkley said, while wearing a cloth mask with the word vote on its exterior. “That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not.”
A spokesperson for Gov. Kate Brown said Friday she will do her all to protect the state’s cherished vote-by-mail system. “The governor will continue to vigorously defend Oregonians’ right to vote, and the vote-by-mail tradition that has become part of our state’s DNA,” spokesperson Nikki Fisher said. “She will work closely with the secretary of state and elections officials across Oregon … so that every voice in Oregon can be heard.”
The senators and postal service union leaders were joined by two Portland-area doctors who described the postal service as an essential component of the nation’s healthcare system – especially for rural Oregonians, low-income folks, veterans and children with cancer, all groups that depend on medicines arriving through the mail. One out of every five Americans receives their prescription medicine “exclusively” through the mail and almost entirely through the Postal Service, according to Wyden.
The call to action comes as the Republican-led Senate has yet to take a vote on the latest COVID-19 relief package. The plan, approved in May by the Democrat-controlled House, includes $25 billion for the Postal Service and some $3.6 billion to help states mail ballots and registration forms to voters.
Last week, Wyden called on the Postal Service’s inspector general to investigate the “recent staffing and policy changes” enacted by the administration’s new postmaster general, Trump donor Louis DeJoy. According to the New York Times, DeJoy has donated more than $1.5 million to Trump’s campaign.
The Washington Post on Friday reported that the Postal Service warned 46 states last month that it couldn’t guarantee all ballots would arrive in time to be counted. Oregon was one of the only states that didn’t receive such a letter, according to the Post, citing the state’s strong vote-by-mail history.
“Under our reading of Oregon’s election laws, it appears your voters should have sufficient time to receive, complete and return their ballots by the state’s deadline,” Postal Service chief lawyer Thomas Marshall wrote to Oregon’s top elections official.
The Post similarly reported that DeJoy addressed USPS workers Thursday and said delivery delays were “unintended consequences” of his moves that were designed to bring efficiency and “increase our performance for the election and upcoming peak season and maintain the high level of public trust we have earned for dedication and commitment to our customers throughout our history.” The agency also is eliminating some 671 automated mail sorting machines across the country.
Wyden and Merkley said they will continue to sound the alarm, while tacitly acknowledging they don’t have much ability to force Republicans’ hands beyond putting the issue on voters’ radars and communicating the fact delayed mail delivery affects more than the coming election.
Wyden, the ranking member on the powerful Finance Committee, noted many Medicaid and Medicare recipients depend on mail-delivered prescription, particularly amid the coronavirus pandemic. “If seniors and others who are vulnerable don’t get their medicine in a timely way they’re going to suffer, and they may die,” he said.
Wyden, sporting a Portland Trail Blazers hat and American flag cloth mask, said delays in delivering prescription medicines could add to taxpayer costs for Medicaid and Medicare.
The Postal Service has faced considerable financial woes for more than a decade now, and its previous leader said the agency needed $75 billion to address its pandemic-related challenges and longer-term obligations to cover pension costs, a controversial mandate Congress imposed in 2006.
Wyden, standing outside what he described as his neighborhood post office branch, said his heart tells him Oregon is in “very strong shape” when it comes to the November election due to its more than two decades of experience running a vote-by-mail system.
But he said Friday he approached Gov. Kate Brown and broached the prospect of summoning the National Guard to ensure that all Oregonians’ ballots are counted during the election. Brown’s office did not respond to a question Friday about whether the conversation occurred and whether she would act on Wyden’s request.
“The six to eight Republican senators who are on the bubble, they’re the ones to watch,” Wyden said of the handful of his colleagues facing tough reelection fights. “If they go home and they hear from people saying ‘I can’t make rent, I can’t pay for groceries, I can’t take care of my kids’ medicine,‘” Wyden said, then he expects those Republicans will feel pressure to reengage and support the relief bill.
The Friday news conference came days after Trump went on Fox News and said he would block increased Postal Service funding as a way to prevent vote-by-mail during the pandemic. Trump on Thursday walked back his comments that he would block the $25 billion request. But, during a Friday news conference, when asked if he’d support the Postal Service and billions earmarked for mailing ballots, the president said, “Sure, if they give us what we want.”
Wyden multiple times mentioned vote-by-mail’s bipartisan success and support in Oregon. He twice cited the late Dennis Richardson’s support for the system and noted that former Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican, was elected statewide through a vote-by-mail election.
Meanwhile state and local elections officials said they remain confident in the system.
Bev. Clarno, Oregon’s Republican secretary of state appointed by Brown following Richardson’s death, issued a statement in response to The Oregonian/OregonLive, saying Oregon will keep working with the state’s post office leaders, citing the “excellent partnership they’ve built during two decades of vote-by-mail.
“We at the state level are meeting with our USPS partners to ensure we are ready for November. The USPS recognizes that Oregon leads the nation with vote by mail and that we are using the latest USPS technology to streamline the process,” she said.
Clarno said Oregonians can track their ballots online once mailed if they are concerned or instead drop them off at ballot drop boxes in their communities.
Portland just conducted a special election for City Council, and Multnomah County elections officials confirmed some voters didn’t receive their ballots until on or after election day.
The elections office mailed 133 replacement ballots to voters the Friday before the election and some of them didn’t arrive until Election Day or the Wednesday after it. Street Roots first reported the ballot issues.
County spokesperson Eric Sample said the office should have mailed the replacements early but did not due to “human error.”
“The delay meant that USPS began delivering these 133 ballots on Election Day,” Sample said. “Our partners at the USPS delivered them promptly once they were received. Regardless of the class of postage, mail ballots are prioritized for delivery within the USPS system.”
The only race on the ballot, for a seat on the Portland City Council, was decided by more than 5,000 votes.
Sample said the county “has been assured” by local postal service officials that voters and the county can expect “the same reliable service we experience each and every election.”
Asked when voters should send in their ballots if they plan to mail them this November, Sample said the county is in discussions with the postal service about how the policy changes “might impact delivery of mail ballots” and is working on specific mailing deadlines “based on those conversations with the USPS.”
Dr. Marissa Maier, a physician specializing in infectious diseases who works at OHSU and the Veterans Administration Health Care System, held up a bottle of her own medication and said she had to wait two weeks longer than normal to receive it. “If my patients with HIV run out of their medication because mail delivery is delayed, it causes them immediate and direct harm,” she said.
Willie Groshell, president of Oregon’s Letter Carriers Union, said workers are continuing to put their health on the line by showing up to work every day during the pandemic. “In many ways the American public is showing us more love than they ever had,” he said, citing the reliance people have on the postal service to deliver critical items during the pandemic and help connect people with friends and relatives. “In some ways morale is up,” he said of workers’ feelings, “in other ways morale is down.”
“It’s impossible to not be concerned,” he said, citing the funding crisis.
A postal service spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for more information Friday.