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[00:00:00]

How did the U.S. Postal Service become the political football of the week? Just moments ago, facing immense bipartisan pressure and public outcry, Dejoy announced he will delay many of his controversial changes to the USPS until after the election.

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Lewis Dejoy, the new postmaster general, he's a major Republican donor. He's also the man Congress has called to Capitol Hill to explain reports of mailboxes being hauled away and sorting machines disappearing, because the way President Trump has tweeted, trying to cast doubt on the mail in balloting process has Democrats on edge.

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We've got a vote early in person if we can. We've got to request our mail in ballots right now, tonight, and send them back immediately and follow up to make sure they're received and then make sure our friends and families do the same.

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And state officials like Alex Padilla, the secretary of state of California, are asking a lot of questions.

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Whatever these notices or changes in directives were, the public deserves to see them because the public deserves to have confidence that what they're mailing their ballots and their ballots will be delivered on a timely basis.

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Consider this the president's efforts to create confusion about voting by mail and how some states are pushing in the opposite direction to make mail in balloting easier.

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From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish, in for Kelly McEvers. And it's Wednesday, August 19th. So here's something we can clear up right away. Voting by mail and voting absentee there, the same thing. Absentee is OK.

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You're sick your way. As an example, I have to do an absentee because I'm voting in Florida and I happen to be president. I live in that very beautiful house over there that's painted white.

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President Trump over the last few months has repeatedly tried to suggest that absentee voting is somehow more secure or preferable to what he calls universal mail in voting to the helicopter.

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Absentee ballots are great. They work. They've been proven. They're good like in Florida. But this universal mail, it is a very dangerous thing. Let's make sense of this.

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There's no such thing as universal mail voting nationwide. State said voting rules and some do have universal voting by mail.

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They have for years in states where voting by mail exists but isn't universal. It's usually referred to as an absentee ballot. But there's no real difference in how the ballot is distributed or collected or counted.

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And if your next question is, well, why not just call it all one thing? Well, some state lawmakers agree with you.

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Many states have, actually, although you still have to apply for what we would used to call an absentee ballot, they have changed the laws to call those ballots now mail ballots. Charles Stewart is a political science professor at MIT.

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He says one of the states that did that in 2016, Florida, which went through their election code and removed all reference to absentee ballots and replaced those references with mail ballots. So that means Florida, where the president says he can safely and securely vote with an absentee ballot, technically doesn't have absentee ballots.

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Whatever you call it, there's no evidence in any state where voting by mail exists of widespread fraud. One of the things that makes me realize that President Trump has not been talking out of a deep well of knowledge in this area, because certainly the organs, the Washingtons, the Colorados that have been doing this the longest, you say a lot of things about the mail ballot system. One of the things you're not going to say about those states is that they're rampant with fraud.

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While the president says one thing about voting by mail, the re-election apparatus behind him is doing another. Last month, Republican voters in North Carolina got a mailer that said, request your absentee ballot. Today, they called the process easy and secure. Some Republican voters in Michigan and Pennsylvania got similar messages.

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And in Ohio, the Republican Party walks door to door with absentee ballot applications in hand.

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People have been pretty courteous and polite and our field staff wear masks and they stand back and they were able to ask the voters questions about the upcoming election.

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Jane Timkin is the state party chair in Ohio.

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We have a top notch field staff and we like to call them the Buckeye Battalion, and there's none better.

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The thing is, she and other state party officials don't really have a choice because there's been a wave of changes to Masland voting rules and it's hard to keep up. My colleague Noel King was talking with a reporter, Pam Fessler, about this, and Pam says the thing you want to pay attention to the rules over getting a ballot in on time?

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Well, they vary all over the place. But most states say that an absentee ballot has to be received by Election Day to count.

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But about eight p.m. count your ballot as long as it's postmarked by Election Day or even or the day before.

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Those ballots also have to be received within a few days of the election to count, although California will count ballots received up to 17 days after the election. But there's a problem and that's that's some absentee ballots arrive without a postmark for a whole variety of reasons. And that's caused some confusion.

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Right. So how do election officials know whether those ballots were in the mail by Election Day and whether they should count?

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Well, it's not always clear. It was a problem this year in Wisconsin's primary. The Supreme Court ruled that ballots could be counted if postmarked by Election Day and received within five days. But then local clerks started saying that hundreds of ballots didn't have postmarks and they didn't know what to do. So it's finally decided they could count ballots if it seemed, quote, more likely than not that they had been mailed on time. So that was pretty subjective. We had a similar problem in New York where a federal judge ruled after the primary that thousands of ballots that had been already rejected because they didn't have postmarks should be counted instead.

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And President Trump cites this as one reason he thinks widespread mail and voting in November could be a mess. So now we have states trying to clarify the rules. Pennsylvania election officials have asked to the state Supreme Court if they can count ballots without a postmark as long as they're received within a few days. And Nevada and Virginia have adopted similar rules.

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But does all of this raise worries that someone could mail their ballot after the polls close and it would still be counted? Well, that's certainly what Republicans are claiming. They already have filed suit against Nevada's new law, saying Democrats are trying to rig the election, that people could see who was ahead on election night and then rush to mail ballots the next day to try and change the outcome. But election officials say this is really far fetched. And I spoke with Tammy Patrick, a former Arizona election official, now with the Democracy Fund, and she's been a liaison between the Postal Service and election officials.

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That's just, quite frankly, a little bit crazy, because you would have to be able to know for sure that none of them would be postmarked. And there's no action that a voter can take to prevent something from being postmarked.

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And, well, Democrats are defending these rules, saying it's not fair for a voter to have their ballot rejected if they mailed it in on time, but through no fault of their own, it didn't get a postmark. But I expect to see a lot more litigation on this issue.

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Just it just really quickly, is there anything else being done to make sure people's ballots count? Well, a lot of states are now requiring bar codes on their mail in ballots, so that should help. And election officials are also recommending that if voters are worried, they can go to the post office and have their ballots postmarked by hand, or better yet, they should try to get their ballots in as soon as possible so they don't have to worry about these deadlines.

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NPR's Pam Fessler. So that's why the mail matters, or rather, that's why the U.S. Postal Service matters so much to the political parties right now. Why Postmaster General Lewis Dejoy has had to explain what he's up to at USPS, why mail sorting machines are going missing, why some of those round blue top mailboxes appeared to be on the move. Quick fact check on that. Padlocks on mailboxes in Los Angeles were reportedly put there only overnight so no one would steal mail from them.

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A viral photo from Wisconsin showing mailboxes stacked in a parking lot was actually taken at the site of a contractor that repairs them. But the damage was done public relations wise. That's why Dejoy says he suspended any potential changes. Quote, Mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes will remain where they are and the stuff that's already been removed like those mail sorting machines. Frank Morris with member station KQED looked into this. He says they're probably not going to be put back anytime soon.

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The U.S. Postal Service processing and distribution center here in Kansas City is a four story building that spans almost a block. Trucks pull into bays on the ground floor full of unsorted mail, checks, cards, prescriptions. That mail is sorted inside this building and sent back out for delivery. But this processing plant is not as robust as it was just a few days ago.

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Yes, there have been some machines taken out of here. They've removed, I think it was three what we call delivery BARKHOR sorting machines.

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Antoinette Robbins heads the American Postal Workers Union Local in Kansas City. The sorting machine she's talking about are huge, each nearly the size of a low slung subway car. And they're complex, able to sort up to 35000 pieces of mail in an hour. And Robison says they've been pulled off one across the country.

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So that's a huge deal, you know, to remove machines during a pandemic when everybody is relying on the mail. And then now we have people wanting to vote by mail, those machines or the machines that will process them ballots.

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The post office had planned to shut down more than 600 sorting machines, about 10 percent of its sorting capacity nationwide. And Duilio Freeman, who heads the Postal Workers Union chapter in Cleveland, says the plan, as he understood it in May, was to just mothball the machines, to unplug them and wrapped them in tarps. But he says that changed when the new postmaster general, Lewis Dejoy, took over in June.

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I mean, we talked initially, then they were dismantled and then they were put out back and put out back on the asphalt.

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In the weather, there is some rationale for scrapping some sorting machines. The volume of the so-called flat mail that goes through them has dropped by 30 percent just since March.

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And of course, that follows a long decline in physical cards, letters and magazines going through the mail.

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The mail has been moving sluggishly this summer, partly because of Detroit's recent cutbacks, including strict limits on overtime and rigid delivery schedules. The post office wouldn't agree to be interviewed for this story, but in a written statement promised that retail hours won't change, overtime will be restored, and that mail processing equipment will stay put.

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What's not clear is how many machines have already been taken apart and hauled away. It's also not the most pressing problem.

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American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dhiman says the USPS has suffered massive losses during the pandemic and needs 25 billion dollars now.

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If it's not addressed, the post office literally sometime early next year is projected and projected to run out of money.

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The House is set to vote Saturday on emergency funding for the post office, though it's not clear if the Senate will act. President Trump, who's long been critical of the post office and mail in voting, has at various times both supported and opposed more funding if the post office does eventually get the money it's asking for.

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It's likely that new sorting machines won't be on the top of its shopping list.

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Frank Morris with member station. Kacie, you are additional reporting this episode from our colleagues at All Things Considered. And here are now and from Nick Castell with member station WCPN Ideastream in Cleveland. And a quick reminder, you can follow NPR's coverage of this week's Democratic National Convention at NPR, dawg. Ask your smart speaker to play NPR. And, of course, by listening to your local public radio station supporting that station makes this podcast possible. We'll be back with more tomorrow.

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I'm Audie Cornish.

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Its presidential campaign season, Donald Trump is doubling down on appealing to just his base. And Joe Biden, he's trying to build a big, broad coalition of anyone who might give him a vote.

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I talked with two political reporters. This. Which strategy might work, listen and subscribe to it's been minute from NPR.