AUGUSTA, Maine — Mainers who want to mail absentee ballots should send them 15 days before Election Day, according to a July letter from the U.S. Postal Service made public on Friday amid uproar over mail delays and their potential effect on the November election.
The letter from Postal Service lawyer and executive vice president Thomas Marshall to Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap warns that the state’s deadlines for requesting and receiving absentee ballots are “mismatched” with the office’s delivery standards as it prepares for a record-setting number of mail ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.
A total of 46 states received similar warnings, which were planned before the June appointment of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, according to The Washington Post. DeJoy has instituted cost-saving measures that have led to reported mail delays across the country. The Postal Service has still indicated confidence in recent days that it can promptly deliver election mail.
In Maine, the shifts led to union officials alleging that tens of thousands of pieces of mail were held back early this week, a total the agency disputed. The Postal Service has also removed two sorting machines from its Scarborough distribution center since June, said Scott Adams, the American Postal Workers Union Local 458, though the agency said it does that routinely.
Marshall’s letters make a rather obvious point that states have extended the deadlines to request absentee ballots past the time when the Postal Service can guarantee delivery. In Maine, voters can get them on Election Day. They must be returned by 8 p.m. that night.
But it was a break from normal post office communication with states in that Marshall recommended voters mail back ballots “at least 15 days before Election Day” or preferably long before to account for high mail volume. The warnings made headlines as the agency is under the microscope, but another union official said they were probably overly cautious.
“A ballot shouldn’t take more than three days if it’s just going through Maine,” said Mark Seitz, the president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Local 92 in the Portland area.
The Postal Service advises election officials to use First Class Mail to send ballots to voters and to allow a week for delivery. The post office is not recommending states change laws, but the agency told Dunlap it “cannot adjust its delivery standards” to accommodate state law.
The letters were motivated by the crush of ballots during the spring and summer primaries, said Steve Doherty, a regional Postal Service spokesperson. He said his agency is “well prepared with “ample capacity” to deliver the crucial mail, but the expected increase in volume led postal officials to redouble efforts to communicate delivery standards that have not changed.
However, Dunlap, a Democrat, characterized the letter as an unusual break in communication with states, saying the post office has been “a shining example of cooperation” prior to this.
“This is a real reversal,” he said.
The letter did not inform the state’s decision to look into drop boxes for absentee ballots, Dunlap said. But he worried that concerns about the mail’s reliability coupled with Trump’s recent comments saying he opposes more funding for the agency because it will enable mail-in voting — which he falsely claims has high levels of fraud — will discourage some from voting.
It’s less clear how all of the new policies are affecting the mail now in Maine. Adams believed one of the machines taken from Scarborough was sent to Hampden to replace an older unit. He said it did not factor into the delay earlier this week, but worried removing more machines could affect service times around the election or busy holiday months.