Postmaster General Louis DeJoy promised some of the nation's top election officials on Thursday that mailed ballots would be the U.S. Postal Service's top priority this autumn.
DeJoy and the Postal Service have been engulfed in a political firestorm following operational changes he ordered — and now has paused — which slowed the throughput of mail and raised some fears that they might constrain voting by mail.
On Thursday, DeJoy told the election officials that he is forming a task force to look at each mail processing plant and assess what it might need to process the quantity of election mail anticipated this year, said New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, who is the president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, or NASS.
DeJoy alluded to such a task force in a public statement earlier this month.
"Over and over again, both [DeJoy] and his senior staff reiterated that the election is their highest priority," Toulouse Oliver said in an interview with NPR after the call. "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."
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican; Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat; and Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican, were also on the call with DeJoy.
Ashcroft took the place of Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, who missed the call due to Hurricane Laura.
Because of the decentralized nature of the U.S. election system, these state officials, who hold leadership positions within NASS, represent the interests of the highest-ranking election officials in the nation. As NPR reported, the officials requested the meeting more than two weeks ago but did not hear back from DeJoy's office immediately.
A month to forget for the USPS
The postmaster general has been battling controversy as anger about nationwide mail delays turned into fears about an election in which as many as half of all ballots could be received or delivered by mail.
In congressional hearings Aug 21. and Monday, Democrats accused DeJoy of attempting to sabotage the election. Citing the delays in service around the country, some called for his resignation.
"If any other CEO had this kind of plummeting record, I can't imagine why he would be kept on," said House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.
DeJoy has defended himself and the Postal Service, calling the allegations about sabotage outrageous.
He has sought to assure questioners that the Postal Service has enough capacity to accommodate even a scenario in which every single American voted by mail — which is not expected — and said he was freezing the operational changes that have slowed the mail so far until after Election Day.
The Postal Service processes and delivers more than 470 million pieces of mail per day, and so DeJoy argues that a theoretical surge of even 150 million ballots ahead of Election Day would be possible to incorporate into normal service.
On Thursday, Toulouse Oliver said DeJoy seemed surprised in the call by the intensity of the backlash and the level of scrutiny his agency is receiving in general.
She told him that comes with the territory in election administration.
"Those of us who've been running elections for years, we understand that as we go into an election, often there will be brand-new scrutiny on a process that we do regularly, that that really raises the level of attention to that issue," Toulouse Oliver told NPR.
Presidential criticism not discussed
One reason for critics' antipathy toward DeJoy is the rhetoric used by President Trump about voting by mail, which he disparages often even as he also uses it. DeJoy is a Republican fundraiser and supporter of Trump's, and some critics alleged he was helping the president kneecap the Postal Service — which the postmaster general denies.
Trump also has said that states' expansion of voting by mail in response to the coronavirus disaster will lead to increased fraud or even foreign nation ballot counterfeiting — ideas the FBI flatly rejected on Wednesday.
Trump's remarks weren't discussed specifically on DeJoy's call with state elections leaders, but the participants did talk about the politicization of mail voting generally.
DeJoy also testified before the House Oversight Committee on Monday that he had tried to relay to members of the president's campaign team that attacks on the Postal Service are "not helpful."
If the postmaster general has stabilized the immediate political situation by stopping the operational changes he ordered earlier this year, he also has drawn newfound scrutiny given the repeated assurances he has made about the Postal Service's intentions and capacity.
On Thursday's call, the election officials requested a consistent line of communication with Postal Service leadership as Election Day draws nearer.
"In this time of really toxic partisan rhetoric, the Postal Service is now a part of that conversation," Toulouse Oliver said. "We all agreed that that it's really important for the highest levels of the Postal Service, and those of us that are chief election officials, to be able to cut through that rhetoric and have that one-on-one direct communication, even if the communication is tense or challenging."