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Mailboxes in Omaha, Neb. Mailboxes in Omaha, Neb.

Mailboxes in Omaha, Neb.

Noah Y. Kim
By Noah Y. Kim August 19, 2020

If Your Time is short

•  Recent removals of both mail collection boxes and mail-sorting machines stoked fears that the Trump administration is trying to jeopardize the collection of mail-in ballots. 

• Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced on Aug. 18 that mail processing equipment and collection boxes would stay where they are. He did not address whether equipment that had already been removed would be reinstalled.

• Postal union leaders said that most of the mail-sorting machines scheduled for removal had already been dismantled by the time DeJoy released his statement.

One Twitter user claimed that it was "cheating 101." Another used the hashtag "#TRUMPSTEALINGELECTION." Social media posts are populating feeds with images of the blue mailboxes being loaded into trucks. 

Why is the removal of mailboxes across the country provoking such controversy? Many fear that the operation is related to President Donald Trump’s efforts to restrict voting by mail at a time when large numbers of Americans are turning to the mail-in option.

Trump frequently targets the U.S. Postal Service in interviews and press conferences and has said he is refusing to provide election aid funding or emergency bailout dollars to assist the struggling agency because of the role it plays in delivering mail-in ballots. 

Faced with mounting criticism over federal handing of USPS operations, Trump political ally and U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on Aug. 18 said he would roll back plans to remove mail collection boxes and sorting machines. However, postal union leaders say that DeJoy’s announcement came too late, and much of the equipment slated for removal has already been dismantled. 

The post office issue has been confusing. Some social media posts about it are missing context, repeating old news, or just plain wrong. Here’s what we know about the plan to remove some equipment, and DeJoy’s statements describing a plan to reverse the measures .

USPS removes collection boxes and sorting machines

Spokespeople from the USPS claimed that the post office was removing "redundant/seldom used" boxes because of a decline in paper mail. The operation generated vocal blowback on social media, and Senator Jon Tester wrote a concerned letter to DeJoy demanding an explanation. One day later, the Postal Service announced that it would suspend the removals until after Election Day. 

In an Aug. 16 statement to CNN, USPS spokeswoman Kim Frum wrote that the Postal Service would "postpone removing boxes for a period of 90 days while we evaluate our customers’ concerns."

Mail-sorting machines were also targeted for cuts. Mail-sorting machines process paper mail at distribution centers, speeding delivery and distribution. Each mail-sorting machine can sort 36,000 pieces of paper mail per hour. But in mid-June, USPS contract administration manager Rickey Dean sent a letter to American Postal Workers Union president Mark Dimondstein notifying the union that 671 of these machines would be taken offline over the course of "the next several months." That reduction would amount to roughly 10% of the Postal Service’s mail sorting machine inventory, a shut-down that could reduce the post office’s sorting ability by nearly 600 million pieces of mail per day. 

On Aug. 16, two months after that notice was given, however,  White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told CNN’s Jake Tapper  that "sorting machines between now and the election will not be taken offline."

Left unsaid by Meadows: exactly how many of these machines had already been shut down or destroyed

Across the nation, postal workers have reported machines have already been eliminated from operating: a dozen in Massachusetts, seven in Charlotte, 15 in the Syracuse, NY, area, and more.

In Boston, postal union leader Scott Hoffman told WGBH that nine machines were removed from Boston’s Dorchester Avenue post office. Chris Bentley, a postal union leader, said that seven mail-sorting machines had been removed in offices in Missouri and Kansas. 

June Harris, president of a Chicago postal union, told PolitiFact she was "concerned" about how the loss of these machines would affect the election.

"The mail is already backlogged due to COVID," she said. "The work is being impacted, the workforce is being impacted, and taking these machines offline is making things even worse."

DeJoy reverses course

On Aug. 18, in response to rising concern that the post office was not prepared to meet the challenge of the election, DeJoy announced that he would suspend "longstanding operational initiatives" to avoid "even the appearance of any impact on election mail." 

In his statement, DeJoy wrote that "mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes will remain where they are."

He did not, however, address whether equipment that had already been removed would be reinstalled. 

Kevin Tabarus, president of a postal union in New York City, said that DeJoy’s announcement came too late. "Just about every processing machine slated for removal in (June) was removed before (Aug. 18)," he told PolitiFact. 

Tabarus estimated that of 38 mail processing machines scheduled for removal in his area, more than 30 had already been dismantled by the time of DeJoy’s statement. He noted that many of the machines that had been destroyed before Aug. 18 would have been used to sort paper ballots, while many of the machines saved by DeJoy’s order were used to sort larger packages and envelopes.

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Our Sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Considerations for Election Polling Locations and Voters, June 22, 2020

Charlotte Observer, "7 mail sorting machines removed in Charlotte, official says, as protests continue," Aug. 18, 2020, "Dismantled equipment behind Cleveland Post Office raises delivery questions," Aug. 17, 2020

CNN, "Trump says he opposes funding USPS because of mail-in voting," Aug. 13, 2020

CNN, "Mark Meadows: Mail-sorting machines will not be taken off line," Aug. 16, 2020

CNN, "Amid criticism, USPS says it will stop removing collection boxes for 90 days," Aug. 16, 2020

New York Times, "Postal Service Suspends Changes After Outcry Over Delivery Slowdown," Aug. 18, 2020

PolitiFact, "Ad Watch: Is the postmaster general a Republican donor with investments in USPS competitors?" Aug. 18, 2020

PolitiFact, "Donald Trump’s dubious claim that 'thousands' are conspiring on mail-ballot fraud," Apr. 9, 2020

PolitiFact, "No, Wisconsin mailbox picture isn’t proof of "massive voter suppression," Aug. 17, 2020

USPS, Letter from Rickey Dean to Mark Dimondstein, June 17, 2020

USPS, Innovation in the Mail, 2020

USPS, "Postmaster General Louis Dejoy Statement," Aug. 18, 2020

U.S. Senate, "Letter from Jon Tester to Louis DeJoy," Aug. 13, 2020

Washington Post, "Trump opposes election aid for states and Postal Service bailout, threatening Nov. 3 vote," Aug. 13, 2020

Washington Post, "Postal Service will stop removing mailboxes," Aug. 14, 2020

WGBH, "At Least A Dozen Mail Sorting Machines Have Already Been Removed In Massachusetts, Postal Union Officials Say," Aug. 17, 2020

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