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Mail machines removed from Washington state post offices. Workers worry about November ballots

caption: Because of the coronavirus, mail volume is down, and the U.S. Postal Service says it may run out of money by this summer.
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Because of the coronavirus, mail volume is down, and the U.S. Postal Service says it may run out of money by this summer.

The U.S. Postal Service is removing 15 high-speed letter-sorting machines from facilities in Washington state, according to internal documents obtained by KUOW.

The machines are to be removed from major mail-processing facilities in Kent, Redmond, Tacoma, Tukwila, Wenatchee and Yakima by Aug. 22.

Post office union leaders say the action is part of a national cost-cutting effort that has already begun to slow down mail delivery and could endanger the November presidential election.

While Americans stuck at home are mailing and receiving many more packages than before the pandemic, the volume of letters and advertising mail is down nationwide, lightening the load on letter-sorting machines.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy — a major Republican campaign donor who owns millions in stocks of post office competitors — said the postal service maintains “ample capacity” to handle unprecedented numbers of mail-in ballots this fall.

“Despite any assertions to the contrary, we are not slowing down election mail or any other mail,” DeJoy said on Aug. 7 in his first public remarks since becoming postmaster general in June.

But the American Postal Workers Union says with a major election on the way, now is not the time to reduce capacity.

“With this new Postmaster General, he seems more like he wants to turn this into the U.S. Postal Business as opposed to the U.S. Postal Service,” Seattle post office clerk and local union leader David Yao said. “We're a service. We're not supposed to make a profit.”

The Washington Post reports that the Postal Service is removing machines from every state except Alaska.

President Donald Trump has been fighting Congressional efforts to provide billions in pandemic relief funding for the Postal Service, whose long-troubled finances have worsened amid Covid-19.

On Thursday, Trump said he wanted to prevent relief funds from expanding the number of Americans who could vote by mail.

Trump has repeatedly — and falsely — claimed that voting-by-mail has high rates of fraud.

“It’s one of the most grievous assaults on democracy I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said of Trump’s efforts to withhold funds from the post office.

Yao works at Seattle’s Bitter Lake post office, where he says many employees are putting in up to 12-hour days.

“We're scrambling like heck to get the mail out.” he said.

The Bitter Lake station is participating in a new pilot project, ordered by DeJoy, aimed at reducing overtime expenses. Instead of waiting for all the morning’s mail to be sorted, mail trucks now have to leave right on schedule. Yao says mail is being left behind for a day or more as a result.

“It doesn't seem like it's saving any money, just hurting customer service,” he said.

Yao said the pilot project began after the Aug. 4 primary, which had record turnout and few glitches, according to election officials.

How the shakeups and cutbacks at the Postal Service have affected customer service to date is unclear.

Pharmacist Kathy Arnold, who lives outside of Monroe in a part of Snohomish County with poor internet service, relies on the post office to bring her stay-at-home entertainment. She said mail delivery times of Netflix DVDs have doubled.

“We are now waiting at least seven business days for a new disc,” Arnold said. “I know, First World problem. We are lucky that we don't rely on the mail for prescriptions or banking as some folks do.”

Retired social worker Kate Buike of Renton does just that. She said her service remains good.

“Medication ordered online Saturday arrived via USPS Monday morning,” Buike said.

Return your ballot ASAP

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman and county election officials raised their concerns about voting by mail in a meeting with postal leaders on Monday. The postal service’s legal counsel had informed them that ballots could take 10 days to be delivered to voters.

In the past, the post office has treated all election mail as first class even though county election agencies only pay bulk-mail rates when sending ballots.

Wyman, a Republican, said post-office officials assured her in that meeting that election mail would keep getting top priority.

“I am very confident that our initial mail that goes out 20 days prior to Election Day will continue to reach voters in a timely fashion, and that they'll have plenty of time to vote,” she said.

Washington state voters are allowed to register to vote up to eight days before Election Day.

Wyman said election officials will mail such late ballots first class, at 55 cents each as opposed to 9 cents at the bulk rate, to make sure they reach voters promptly.

Ballots mailed back by voters are delivered first class, with no postage required. Still, Wyman recommended returning your ballot as soon as possible to avoid any problems.

Washington voters are better situated than those in many states. Vote by mail has been the norm statewide since 2011, and ballots only have to be dropped off in an official election dropbox or postmarked — not received — by Election Day.

“If they introduce [mail-in voting] on a large scale, I think the Postal Service can probably handle it unless they drastically cut how many hours we can work,” Yao said. “I would worry more that state governments that are new to it may not have all the kinks ironed out by that time, and the election is very close actually.”

Washington state has nearly 450 election dropboxes, which more voters relied on than the U.S. mail in the August primary.

Correction, 9:45 a.m., 08/18/2020: An earlier version misstated the location of the Postal Service facility in Kent.

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