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Facing COVID-19 Outbreak Among Workers, USPS Seeks Help With Mail-In Ballots In Swing States

The coronavirus has had such a severe impact on U.S. Postal Service workers in Wisconsin and Michigan that state agencies are reportedly asking Minnesota to send help as Election Day looms on the horizon.

An outbreak affecting letter carriers could have major consequences for Wisconsin and Michigan voters, as both states have a hard Election Day deadline for votes to be received. 

“The vast majority of voters in Wisconsin and a lot of states are likely going to be voting by mail,” Kat Calvin, founder and executive director of Spread The Vote, told Shadowproof. “Now we’re having this trouble.”

A current Minnesota postal service worker with knowledge of the Wisconsin request confirmed to Shadowproof that the plea was made during a union phone call on October 29.

According to the worker, the union’s national business agent said that the disease is “rampant” among carriers in Wisconsin and that stations around the state are seeing labor shortages due to the outbreak. 

Carriers were also implored to volunteer for the Detroit office “for an opportunity to make some extra money,” according to internal documents reviewed by Shadowproof. The paper said workers traveling over 50 miles could be eligible for roundtrip mileage and hotel reimbursements, as well as a per diem of up to $56 a day.

According to the Washington Post: “In Detroit, where Democrats are relying on heavy turnout to carry the rest of Michigan, only 70.9 percent of first-class mail was on time the week that ended October 9, compared with 92.2 percent at the start of the year.”

The Supreme Court on October 26 ruled that ballots in Wisconsin must be received no later than Election Day at 8 p.m., irrespective of postmark. That cutoff could result in the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters.

“Elections must end sometime, a single deadline supplies clear notice, and requiring ballots be in by Election Day puts all voters on the same footing,” Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh wrote of the deadline in a concurring opinion. 

“County clerks can’t start counting votes until 7 a.m. on Election Day, and ballots that are postmarked and received by November 3rd will still be valid,” explained Wisconsin ACLU Rights for All Organizer Ryeshia Farmer in a blog post on October 22. “All of this means that it could take a while before we get verified results.”

“That we have this pandemic is exactly why we need the courts to step in,” said Spread the Vote’s Calvin. “And it’s why the recent Supreme Court decisions have been so disturbing—they are not taking the current crisis into account.”

In a year where trust in the electoral process is already low, Calvin contended the ruling and the disruption to the polls could present real issues for the democratic system. 

“That’s another reason to make people question the legitimacy of this election, which is the last thing we need,” Calvin said. 

Wisconsin currently has one of the nation’s highest rates of COVID-19, with 5,778 new cases confirmed on October 31. The state’s outbreak has coincided with a surge in mail-in voting as people avoid the polls. 

According to Paul McKenna, president of the American Postal Workers Union, AFL-CIO for Milwaukee Area Local 3, the pandemic has had a major effect on the Lakeland District, which encompasses much of eastern Wisconsin. The outbreak, McKenna said, was in some ways foreseeable.

“It’s hard forcing workers to wear masks,” said McKenna, adding that masks weren’t mandated for carriers until last week.

McKenna said he was not aware of a call for letter carriers but that such a call would go to the National Association of Letter Carriers, not APWU. He told Shadowproof the total cases in the district from March were a little over 500, with around 200 of those coming in October alone.

“There were 236 cases from March to September 1,” said McKenna. “Then, in September and October, there were roughly 300.”

The news from Wisconsin and Michigan is part of a worrying trend of slowing mail that began over the summer. Critics at that time charged the slow-down was aimed at disrupting the agency ahead of an increase in the use of absentee ballots. 

As NPR reported on October 31: “After becoming postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, a high-dollar donor to Republicans including Trump, instituted a number of service changes that critics charge slowed mail deliveries.”

“The Postal Service says it has stopped those measures, including the removal of distribution machines, sidewalk mail boxes and other actions, until after the election,” the news agency continued. “A series of court rulings ordered similar steps.”

Washington State Solicitor General Noah Purcell, in a hearing on October 30, called for stronger measures to ensure ballots in Michigan and Wisconsin are counted. He maintained that added sweeps in post offices to find misplaced ballots could “go a long ways.”

“If we find out next Wednesday that they weren’t,” said Purcell, “it will be too late and there will be no way to undo the harm.”

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is seeing mail delays in central Pennsylvania, Detroit, and greater Michigan regions—among others—due to “COVID-19 and employee unavailability.” The three regions, which include parts of two states seen as essential to winning the election, are taking “special, extraordinary measures to deliver ballots,” according to the USPS. 

As a result of a lawsuit from the NAACP, Vote Forward, and other voting rights groups requiring its disclosure, the data detailing those delays was released.

D.C. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who is presiding over the case, said at the end of an October 29 hearing on delivery times that “the court’s hat is off to the men and women who are responsible for the day-to-day processing and delivery.” 

“They didn’t create the problems in this case,” said Sullivan. “Those at the top of the employment ladder, the supervisors and [Postmaster General Louis] DeJoy, created the problems.”

Sullivan’s praise for USPS workers was echoed by Calvin, who called them “the most essential of workers.”

“I’m concerned about the postal workers. I don’t want this to make people mistrust them,” said Calvin. “But there’s no excuse for us to even be in this situation.”

Eoin Higgins

Eoin Higgins

Eoin Higgins is a journalist from western Massachusetts. Subscribe to his newsletter, The Flashpoint.