Post Office woes, absentee voting and COVID-19 fears raise concerns ahead of 2020 presidential election
August 24-30, 2020
By Daily Record Staff
Concerns about COVID-19 and absentee voting in Arkansas and across the country were heightened in recent days after the newly appointed U.S. Postmaster announced plans to overhaul U.S. Postal Service (USPS) ahead of the November presidential election.
However, USPS Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on Tuesday (Aug. 18) issued a statement saying he would delay a slew of reform efforts until after the Nov. 3 election. His about-face occurred after House and Senate Democrats and several voting rights groups accused the former Trump campaign fundraiser of deliberately attempting to sabotage the 2020 election by slowing mail delivery nationwide.
DeJoy, who was appointed to his post by Trump in June, has announced cost-saving plans in the past few weeks that will hike postage costs, cut overtime work and local post office hours, remove thousands of mailboxes across the country, and shutter USPS distribution hubs across the U.S.
“The United States Postal Service will play a critical role this year in delivering election mail for millions of voters across the country. There has been a lot of discussion recently about whether the Postal Service is ready, willing and able to meet this challenge. I want to make a few things clear: The Postal Service is ready today to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives this fall,” DeJoy said in one-page statement.
DeJoy added that even with the challenges of keeping our employees and customers safe and healthy as they operate amid a pandemic, the postal service “will deliver the nation’s election mail on time and within our well-established service standards.
“The American public should know that this is our number one priority between now and election day. The 630,000 dedicated women and men of the Postal Service are committed, ready and proud to meet this sacred duty,” he said.
Still, DeJoy’s change of heart has not halted President Trump’s continued criticism of universal mail-in voting, which he states often is rife with fraud and abuse. He recently lambasted Democrats at a White House press briefing for inserting $25 billion of new USPS appropriations in the recent COVID-19 emergency relief bill, which stalled in recent congressional negotiations.
“We’ll take care of the Post Office. We want to make sure that the Post Office runs properly. It hasn’t run properly for probably 50 years,” Trump said at Aug. 17 White House press conference. “So, we want to make sure that the Post Office doesn’t lose billions of dollars. Somebody said it lost $78 billion over a relatively short period of time. That’s over years — $78 billion. So, you can’t have that.”
In his criticisms, Trump has also alleged there is a distinct difference between absentee and mail-in voting. However, the verification process is the largely the same for both, election experts say, and most states consider them to be the same thing.
“We have a very big election coming up. I think we’re going to do very well. And I want to make sure the election is not stolen, and so does everybody else. And I’m sure both sides feel that way. So, we have to be very careful with this universal, mail-in ballot,” said Trump. “Absentee ballots are great. They’ve worked for a long time. And I totally endorse absentee ballots.”
To answer those concerns from U.S. lawmakers about the 2020 election possibly being disrupted, DeJoy was expected to testify on Friday (Aug. 21) before the Republican-friendly U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The Trump administration appointee will follow up that friendly meeting with what is expected to be a more raucous hearing before the Democratic-led House Oversight and Reform Committee.
On Aug. 18, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, chair of the House Oversight panel, requested DeJoy to produce documents and information ahead of Monday’s meeting in response to a detailed, ten-page letter sent last week by her, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, and other House party leaders concerning recent Postal Service reforms and federal elections.
“It should not have taken the Postmaster General this long to recognize that his actions were causing major delays — in rural and urban communities, and among veterans, seniors, and families across the country,” Maloney said in a statement. “His announcement … is certainly necessary, but it is inadequate to remedy the damage already done and ensure ballots will be delivered on time this November.”
Governor tweaks Arkansas’ absentee ballot access
In Arkansas, Gov. Hutchinson, Secretary of State John Thurston and other state and local election officials have already taken steps to shore up absentee voting ahead of expected record mail-in turnout for the November election, which also includes a long-list of local, state and federal political races and a raft of Constitutional referendums and initiated acts up for approval.
On Aug. 7, Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued an executive order that allows Arkansans to vote absentee if they are concerned that voting in person may be a health risk to themselves or others due to COVID-19. In response to a request by Arkansas Association of County Clerks, which represents top election officials in all 75 counties, Hutchinson’s executive order also allows elections officials to start processing absentee ballots a week earlier than usual to allow for an anticipated increase in the number of mail-in ballots.
“This order affirms Secretary of State John Thurston’s position that the fear of exposure to COVID-19 or of exposing others at the polls is reason enough for a voter to cast an absentee ballot,” said Hutchinson. “If a significant number of voters chooses that option, elections officials could be overwhelmed. We’ve already seen a significant increase in the number of applications for absentee ballots. This executive order builds in extra time for them to process and authenticate absentee ballots to ensure an accurate count and a fair election.”
Also, the State Board of Election Commissioners, which consists of a seven-member board that includes the Secretary of State as chairperson, has also posted a primer on its website that provides detailed instructions on absentee voting in Arkansas.
Under the governor’s actions, additional days will be allowed for processing ballots to coincide with the 15-day early voting period, which begins on Oct. 19. During that time, elections officials will be allowed to process only the registration information from the outer envelopes of an absentee ballot. By Arkansas law, they will not be permitted to open the ballots and count absentee votes until 8:30 a.m. election day. The deadlines for applying for an absentee ballot and submitting a completed ballot by Oct. 27 remain the same.
Pulaski County Poll watch
Pulaski County Circuit and County Clerk Terri Hollingsworth told the Daily Record that her office has been inundated with request for absentee ballots because of COVID-19. Compared to 2016, when the clerk’s office mailed out a total 8,000 absentee ballot applications, Hollingsworth said her office has already sent out 12,000 with nearly two more months to the cutoff date. The county’s top election official said she expects her office to send out at least 20,000 applications to voters who want to vote by mail in the Nov. 3 election.
In October, Hollingsworth sent an open letter to the governor the secretary of state requesting additional financial support for Pulaski and the other 74 Arkansas counties to meet the needs of an unprecedented spike in absentee voting due to COVID-19 health safety concerns.
Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) signed into law in late March, Arkansas and other states were to split $400 million in new emergency relief funds to prepare and respond to the coronavirus for the 2020 federal election cycle. To date, request to the Republican governor and secretary of state additional CARES Act has gone unheeded, Hollingsworth said, but county officials will be able seek reimbursement for COVID-19 related expenses after the election.
“The governor has discussed absentee voting many times and through executive orders has granted no-excuse absentee for the run-off and special elections that have occurred throughout the state since our primary election in March. However, more action is needed,” Hollingsworth wrote in her July 2 letter. She noted that adequate funding would cover additional costs for postage, printing, processing, canvassing, and tabulating absentee requests and completed ballots.
Additional, Pulaski County has seen a six-fold increase in absentee ballot requests compared to the 2016 president election, causing voter rolls to grow by 12,000 to 252,530. Because of this trend, the county’s first black duly elected public officer ahead of Mayor Frank Scott Jr., is encouraging all citizens who plan to vote by mail to turn in their absentee ballot application as soon as possible.
“The deadline is Oct. 27 but we are certainly asking folk to request them now,” said Hollingsworth, citing the county’s $2.50 per mailing cost associated with absentee ballots. Those extra mail costs and the trepidation with USPS’s operational and financial woes are leaving the Pulaski County clerk feeling a bit uneasy as the fall election nears.
“We can’t actually trust the (Post Office) to get the (absentee) ballot to them in time for them to vote and get it back,” Hollingsworth said the six-day gap between the mail-in voting deadline and the Nov. 3 election.
Another consideration for a smooth election process is actual in-person voting once early voting begins and the expected traditional rush of last-minute ballots on election day. To mitigate the spread of the highly contagious virus at the poll, Hollingsworth said all county election officials will don personal protection equipment (PPE), while social distance policies to individuals waiting to vote.
As well, voting machines will be space six feet apart at all county precinct polling sites once citizens enter the voting booth. Hollingsworth said precinct volunteers and works will also have PPE equipment, including face masks, gloves and sanitizer, to hand out to voters who may forget to bring their own.
Despite many challenges, Hollingsworth said county election officials are prepared to make sure the Nov. 3 election in Arkansas’ largest county goes off without a hitch. For those voters that plan to vote in person at the poll, the county clerk warns voters to prepare for long lines and waits because of COVID-19 safety measures, as well as unprecedented interest in the 2020 presidential election.
“We are probably going to have a record number of who are probably going to be voting, so (we) need for folks to be prepared. Bring a chair, pack their lunch, pack dinner or whatever, but be ready to stand in line because we have to social distance,” said Hollingsworth, adding that “lines are going to be look even though they might not be longer because we are social distancing.”
According to Secretary of State spokesman Chris Powell, the CARES Act provided emergency funding of $4,719,034 under the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) for additional expenses for the 2020 election cycle. However, Arkansas must meet a state match requirement of $943,807. To date, approximately $1.5 million has been committed counties for PPE and to purchase hi-speed voting machines. A state communications program to inform voters about COVID-19 election-related issues is also being drafted, he said.
“The majority of remaining funds will be disbursed to counties, based upon availability of funds, to pay costs attributable to eligible county PPE purchases, absentee ballot costs due to the COVID19 pandemic, increased costs attributable to COVID-19 effects on polling sites, any additional eligible equipment and communications costs that are eligible and approved as COVID-19 related,” said Powell. “State match funds came from the Secretary of State’s existing budget and no other funding has been identified at this time.”
1-2. Arkansas citizens face potential hurdles to casting absentee ballots and getting to the voting booth on Nov. 3. (Photos provided by Arkansas Secretary of State Office)
3. Denver-based grassroots organization Masks with Mission announced its nationwide campaign to bolster 2020 voter turnout by distributing protective “Vote Masks” nationwide. (Photo provided by Masks with Mission)