The United States Postal Service is under increased scrutiny from politicians who are warning that the agency is not prepared to handle the tens of millions of mail-in ballots expected to be sent for the November election.
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August 13, 2020 4:42 PM EDT

President Donald Trump escalated his attacks on mail voting on Thursday, when he seemed to say clearly what he has insinuated for months: that his opposition to funding the U.S. Postal Service, and additional election resources, is part of a deliberate effort to make it more difficult for Americans to vote by mail in November.

“They need that money in order to have the Post Office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” the President said Thursday in an interview with Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business Network. “But if they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.”

He added, “Now, if we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting, they just can’t have it.”

In the same conversation, Trump repeated the false claim he’s made before that an increase in mail voting will result in “one of the greatest frauds in history.” States like Oregon and Washington, which have mandatory mail voting, report extremely low instances of fraud.

Trump’s comments Thursday were not made in isolation. The day before, Trump told reporters that he had refused to sign off on an emergency funding package that included $25 billion for the Postal Service and $3.5 billion for election security. On the call with Fox on Thursday, Trump linked his decision to block those funds to his opposition to mail voting. “That’s election money, basically,” he said after asserting the funding would be “for something that will turn out to be fraudulent.”

Election experts and Democrats worry that the President’s comments will undermine voters’ trust in November’s election results. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, told reporters on Thursday afternoon that Trump’s opposition to funding the Postal Service was “pure Trump,” adding, “he doesn’t want an election.”

In the latest round of coronavirus relief negotiations, Congressional Democrats have repeatedly demanded additional funding for the Postal Service, which is on the brink of bankruptcy due in part to a drop in advertising mail during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Democrats have not proposed a universal vote-by-mail measure, as Trump suggested. All states, the majority of which are Republican-led, will offer some type of mail voting in November. Election officials from both parties have actively encouraged voters to cast their votes by mail as a way to avoiding contracting or spreading COVID-19 during the ongoing pandemic. A record number of Americans are expected to vote by mail this year.

Elections experts said Thursday that the President’s remarks inject unnecessary politics into an already challenging situation.

“The funding and the assistance to the Post Office is not about implementation of universal vote by mail. It’s about supporting the voters’ rights to the state laws in the states that they live in, to receive a ballot and return it through the mail in a global pandemic,” said Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor at the Democracy Fund who advises many election officials on voting-by-mail. “It’s not about, and shouldn’t be about, a partisan or political maneuver in order to prevent or to assist anyone from voting in a particular way. That’s where I have a real challenge with anyone saying that they’re withholding funding for a political reason.”

The President’s remarks come as Democrats have also called for more oversight of the new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, who Trump appointed in May. DeJoy is a major Republican donor and holds a multimillion-dollar stake in his former company XPO Logistics, a USPS contractor, likely creating a major conflict of interest, according to a CNN investigation of financial disclosures and ethics experts.

DeJoy, who has served as Postmaster General for less than two months, has already initiated a sweeping reorganization of the USPS, including a hiring freeze and other cost-cutting moves that postal workers say are hampering their ability to pick-up and deliver mail on time. State election officials say delays in mail pick-up and delivery could hamper the agency’s ability to deliver ballots before the November election.

While millions of Americans are planning to vote by mail for the first time this year, Patrick says that the increase in mail-in ballots is not her primary concern. The Postal Service processes about 180 million pieces of mail a day, so the increase in ballots is just “a blip on the radar” she says.

“We have established over the years many policies and protocols in collaboration with the Postal Service, to make sure that there is accountability and integrity in the vote by mail process,” Patrick says. “My concern under this new Postmaster General is whether or not those same policies are going to be fulfilled, and acknowledged and satisfied.”

House and Senate Democrats each sent letters to DeJoy this week raising concerns that his choices have already caused mail delays. “It is always essential that the Postal Service be able to deliver mail in a timely and effective manner. During the once-in-a-century health and economic crisis of COVID-19, the Postal Service’s smooth functioning is a matter of life-or-death, and is critical for protecting lives, livelihoods and the life of our American Democracy,” House lawmakers wrote.

“The House is seriously concerned that you are implementing policies that accelerate the crisis at the Postal Service, including directing Post Offices to no longer treat all election mail as First Class. If implemented now, as the election approaches, this policy will cause further delays to election mail that will disenfranchise voters and put significant financial pressure on election jurisdictions.”

In the Senate letter, Democrats urged DeJoy to “prioritize the delivery of all election mail,” and criticized his leadership. “Instead of taking steps to increase your agency’s ability to deliver for the American people, you are implementing policy changes that make matters worse, and the Postal Service is reportedly considering changes that would increase costs for states at a time when millions of Americans are relying on voting by mail to exercise their right to vote,” they wrote.

Though the President has politicized mail voting, suggesting that only Democrats are embracing it, Patrick notes that if mailed ballots are delayed or not prioritized, Republican turnout would likely suffer. Seniors and rural voters, who tend to vote Republican, are historically most likely to vote by mail. Election officials have already heard from Republican voters asking if it was safe to vote by mail during the primaries when Trump criticized the process, Patrick says, and that could increase if the attacks continue.

Write to Abigail Abrams at abigail.abrams@time.com.

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