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A United States Postal Worker delivers the mail in Brookline, Mass., on Aug. 17, 2020.
Jessica Rinaldi—The Boston Globe/Getty Images
Updated: | Originally published:

When the United States Postal Service’s internal watchdog published its assessment in August of what had gone wrong with mail-in ballots during this year’s primary season, its first recommendation was for federal Postal Service leadership to improve its communication with state and local election officials.

That hasn’t happened.

Since Postmaster General Louis DeJoy took the reins in June, multiple state officials tell TIME that communication from federal leadership has gotten both markedly worse—and more ham-fisted. Much of the outreach from federal USPS officials to both state officials and their constituents has resulted in fierce pushback and occasionally litigation. “It’s really been since DeJoy’s tenure that this has suddenly become a major issue, from a national perspective,” says Nellie Gorbea, a Democrat and Rhode Island’s Secretary of State.

“Historically, my office has had a good relationship with our local postmaster,” she says. “It’s not like we woke up this year and because we’re doing predominantly mail in ballots…we suddenly discovered we need to talk to the Postal Service.”

In interviews this week, half a dozen Secretaries of State told TIME that while they valued their partnerships with local Postal Service officials, communication problems with Washington were rife. “I distinguish between people in Minnesota who have been helpful and innovative,” says Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon. “The higher ups at the federal level in Washington seem tone deaf.”

One significant example of this failure of communication occurred earlier this month, when USPS began sending, without prior warning to Secretaries of State, millions of postcards to every voter nationwide, urging them to request a ballot at least 15 days before election day, mail their ballots at least seven days before and, if necessary, to make sure their envelopes were postmarked. The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), a bi-partisan organization was not informed of the mailing beforehand, according to the organization’s spokeswoman, Maria Benson. The information was inaccurate in some states.

Republican and Democratic election officials across the country—including in swing states like Nevada—urged their constituents to ignore the federal mailings. In Colorado, where every registered voter automatically receives a ballot, Jena Griswold, the Secretary of State, promptly filed a lawsuit alleging that USPS’ outreach will confuse and disenfranchise her constituents. A Colorado district judge subsequently issued an injunction, noting that the USPS’s postcard “provides false or misleading information about the manner of Colorado’s elections” and “will sow confusion amongst voters by delivering a contradictory message.”

Even officials in states like Minnesota and Iowa, who say the information on the USPS postcard is largely pertinent in their states were befuddled by USPS officials’ failure to inform them of the mailing ahead of time. “It could have been handled better,” says Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican.

“This is my third statewide election and I’ve never seen this absence of coordinated communication from the top,” says Minnesota’s Simon, a Democrat, who found out about the USPS postcard when he found one in his own mailbox.

In a statement to TIME, USPS spokeswoman Martha Johnson that the mailer was intended to be general all-purpose guidance on the use of the mail, not guidance on state rules” and that the organization has provided links for voters to check the regulations for their individual states. “We have not done an Election Mail public information campaign on this scale before. However, for every election cycle we employ a robust and proven process to ensure proper handling of all Election Mail, including ballots. This includes close coordination and partnerships with election officials at the local and state levels,” she says.

On Thursday, DeJoy will host a conference call with all Secretaries of State. Griswold says she doesn’t expect anything “except excuses” from the conversation. Jim Condos, Secretary of State for Vermont, questioned whether he would even “show up” for the call.

A man at the "Save The Post Office" rally outside a post office building on August 25, 2020 in New York City. (Alexi Rosenfeld—Getty Images)
A man at the "Save The Post Office" rally outside a post office building on August 25, 2020 in New York City.
Alexi Rosenfeld—Getty Images

Ronald Stroman, the former Deputy Postmaster General at USPS who resigned in June after nearly a decade at the organization, says USPS’s recent national outreach strategy marks a departure from previous years. During his tenure, Stroman recalled, USPS “had a very good working relationship with the states.” He was frequently in touch with Secretaries of State about mail-in-voting and would regularly brief election officials before voting started, he says.

The lack of communication this election cycle has led to distrust among state election officials, Stroman added. He described the working relationship between state election officials and USPS as a “toxic environment.” “If you have no trust, it’s hard to work through problems,” he says.

An internal USPS election playbook for this year, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the nonprofit Protect Democracy, highlights the need to communicate with state election officials. When asked about the implications for the November election of this shift in communication, Stroman wasn’t optimistic. If things stay as they are, he say he foresees problems.

Stroman notes another recent example of poor communication from federal Postal Service officials: a series of letters that USPS general counsel Thomas Marshall sent in late July to 46 states and Washington D.C., warning them that some components of their election laws may be “incongruous with the Postal Service’s delivery standards.” Stroman says that USPS has sent similar letters in past election cycles; his office did so during his tenure. But in the past, federal USPS leadership always discussed the contents of the letter, and their implications, with state officials prior to mailing.

“Unfortunately, it appears that there was little if any communication with state election officials about the content of the letter before it was sent,” says Stroman. “This lack of communication resulted in varying interpretations about the meaning of the letter.”

After the letter was circulated, NASS, the bipartisan organization for Secretaries of State, requested a meeting with DeJoy to discuss the USPS’ plans for the election. On August 27, DeJoy and Marshall held a conference call with the group’s leadership. During the conversation, NASS members offered to review election communications before USPS sent them out. Iowa’s Pate, who was briefed on the call by participants afterwards, says he was told DeJoy was receptive to concerns. “He didn’t just say elections were a priority, he implied they were the priority,” he says.

But it’s unclear if the conversation had an impact. USPS did not take NASS up on its offer to review election communications, and the surprise postcards were mailed two weeks later.

The deadline for requesting ballots in most states is the end of October. Stroman says there is still time to rectify the lack of communication between state officials and USPS leadership, and to secure a successful mail voting process. DeJoy and the USPS election-mail task force, he says, need to communication to state officials concrete measures, like evaluating the readiness of processing plants for an election-mails urge; ensuring that all political and election mail are cleared from processing plants every night; informing all employees in writing that ballots should be processed as First-Class mail; and providing weekly performance data for First-Class and marketing mail. “You need employee-level specificity,” he adds, “otherwise it’s going to be confusion.”

Correction, Sept. 17

The original version of the story misstated Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate’s role in an Aug. 27 phone call between Postmaster Louis DeJoy and Secretaries of State. He was briefed on the call afterwards, he did not participate in it.

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