WILMINGTON — Last week, U.S. Representative David Rouzer told a crowd of about 50 Donald Trump supporters that, just like other investigations and criticisms aimed at the president since his inauguration, recent congressional investigations of the U.S. Postal Service and its moves to downscale operations were part of a “hoax.”
“First we had Russia-gate, then we had Ukraine-gate. All these are hoaxes,” Rouzer told the crowd. “Last week we had the Post Office hoax. You know, there’s no end to their efforts to try to put barriers in place.”
Days before the “MAGA Meet-up” in a parking lot of the New Hanover County Republican Party headquarters off Market Street, U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy defended his cost-cutting decisions during hearings before the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Critics claimed certain moves DeJoy had made since taking over the agency in June — eliminating all employee overtime and late delivery orders, cutting hours at retail locations, and ordering the removal of 700 collection boxes and 671 large mail-sorting machines (the latter representing about 10% of its inventory) — hampered the agency’s ability to handle an expected surge in mail-in ballots cast amid a pandemic before the November presidential election. They also pointed to consistent Trump attacks on the mail-in voting system, which he has repeatedly claimed is one riddled with fraud without providing any evidence.
Trump said in mid-August that he opposed additional USPS funding because it could lead to more Americans voting by mail, a segment of voters expected to break records this fall. (Hours later he told reporters he wouldn’t deny a coronavirus relief bill just because it included additional funds for the USPS.) According to the New York Times, nearly 75% of the nation’s voters will be able to vote by mail, the highest percentage in U.S. history.
Democrats and other critics have also said DeJoy’s decisions to slash services were intended to slow mail delivery, further undermine public confidence in the USPS ahead of the November election, and were politically motivated. He had contributed $2.7 million to Trump and other Republicans since 2016, according to Reuters, and in 2019 he led fundraising for the Republican National Convention. (He has also donated $169,000 to North Carolina candidates and the N.C. Republican Party since 1999, according to records maintained by the State Board of Elections.
Meanwhile, DeJoy and key Republicans in Congress have defended his moves as part of a necessary overhaul of the agency after it lost $9 billion last year and has been hit hard by the pandemic. The agency reported a loss of $2.2 billion from April to June, according to the Associated Press.
“I am sorry you are on the targeting end of this political hit piece,” Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson told him during last Friday’s hearing.
After facing significant public outrage, DeJoy announced on August 18 he would delay the cost-cutting measures until after the election — hours after at least 21 states said they would sue DeJoy and the USPS because the policy changes would slow mail delivery and impede states’ abilities to conduct fair and effective elections.
Rouzer explains his statement
Rouzer, who did not face a primary opponent this spring, is running against Democrat challenger Christopher Ward to hold on to his 7th Congressional District seat this fall.
In an interview with Port City Daily after his speech on Wednesday, Rouzer was asked to explain why he considered investigations into DeJoy and the USPS as part of a hoax. He said reports that recent cutbacks could hamper the mail-in voting process were untrue.
“Well, that’s just not correct. Moves have not been made to make it more difficult. The postmaster general has testified before Congress, so that’s a flat out lie,” he said. “There’s nothing being done to compromise the ability of the post office to deliver the mail and to deliver any absentee ballots that are mailed back in.”
In his testimony before the Senate on August 21, DeJoy, a former CEO of a North Carolina logistics company, promised mail-in ballots would be delivered in time. But he also said he was unaware of the 700 collection boxes that had been removed, and when it was brought to his attention, he ordered the removals to stop.
“When I found out about it, we socialized with the leadership team and looked at what the excitement it was creating, so I decided to stop it. And we’ll pick it up after the election, but this a normal process that has been around for 50 years,” DeJoy said.
He also told Senators the USPS had no intention of reinstalling the 671 mail-sorting machines because “they’re not needed.” Postal workers have said the removal of the machines has caused major mail delays, and union leaders said “there’s no other explanation” aside from vote suppression.
Trump has argued mail-in ballots would favor the Democrats, but a recent study co-written by political scientists at the University of Virginia and Brigham Young University showed only a small increase in Democratic voter turnout. After analyzing presidential and midterm general elections between 1996 and 2018, states that had switched to all-mail voting saw increased voter turnout of 1.8% to 2.9% — but only a 0.7% uptick in the shares of votes cast for Democratic candidates.
“All of our models indicate that mandatory VBM [vote-by-mail] has no meaningful effect on how well Democrats do in elections,” according to the political scientists’ published findings. They said the 0.7% increase was “not close to statistically significant and substantially small” because it was within the study’s margin of statistical error.
Workers still claiming mail delays
On Monday, DeJoy testified before a more hostile House committee controlled by Democrats. He argued widespread delays in recent weeks were caused mostly by a shortage of USPS workers because of the pandemic. But Democrats countered with a memo written to DeJoy in early August warning him that suspension of overtime compensation and extra mail trips would cause such delays.
“In the Postal Service’s 240 years of delivering the mail, how can one person screw this up so fast?” Representative Stephen Lynch asked. “What the heck are you doing?”
DeJoy defended his moves but also admitted Trump’s repeated attacks on mail-in voting were undermining his job. He said he did not order any cutbacks of overtime compensation, although an internal USPS memo told employees the agency would prohibit overtime and limit traditional measures used by local postmasters to alleviate staffing shortages.
If overtime was indeed cut, according to DeJoy, it was someone else in the Postal Service who cut it. He also told the committee the USPS would deliver ballots “securely and on time” for the November election.
Rouzer said there is enough USPS funding to ensure a fair election.
“They’re sitting on roughly $14 to $15 billion cash on hand, and they have access to another $10 billion loan from the Treasury that Congress approved. So they basically have 25 billion extra dollars to navigate and effectuate the mail process. There’s no effort being made — there’s no effort at all being made to disenfranchise anybody in their vote,” he said.
On July 29, the Department of Treasury announced it had made a $10 billion loan available to the USPS as part of the coronavirus relief bill. But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin applied certain terms on the loan, such as giving the department trade information about the Postal Service’s top 10 contracts with private third-party shipping companies, including Amazon, FeEx, and UPS.
Ultimately, Rouzer said he would encourage people in the Wilmington area, which is part of his voting district, to vote however they feel comfortable, whether that’s using mail-in ballots or voting in-person.
“It’s perfectly appropriate to request an absentee ballot. A lot of people do, and a lot of people will perhaps feel more comfortable sending in absentee ballots. I think it’s also — you’re going to see a lot of people that feel very comfortable actually showing up at the polls,” he said.
On Thursday, DeJoy told U.S. elections officials that he is now creating a task force to analyze each mail processing facility’s ability to process mail-in ballots this fall. New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, was confident the USPS was doing what is necessary.
“Over and over again, both [DeJoy] and his senior staff reiterated that the election is their highest priority,” Oliver told NPR. “And they are actively putting into place processes and procedures to make sure every single piece of election mail, especially ballots, are going to be treated like gold.”
But postal works across the U.S. have said mail continues to be significantly delayed, with priority mail running several days late, on average, and new requirements resulting in many trucks setting out on their routes five minutes early and often empty. Some have said the removal of sorting machines and new operation requirements for trucks and carriers have worsened the delays.
Keith Richardson, president of a Chicago chapter of the American Postal Workers Union, told NBC News that he had “never seen anything like it.”
“Some stations have so much mail backed up, it’s three times more than the volume you would see at Christmas,” Richardson said.
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