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Post office concerns highlighted at Senate hearing on elections amid COVID-19

Will the postal service deliver ballots on time for votes to be counted in November?

Rick Stream, the Republican director of elections for the St. Louis County Election Board in Missouri, testifies during a Senate Rules and Administration hearing Wednesday.
Rick Stream, the Republican director of elections for the St. Louis County Election Board in Missouri, testifies during a Senate Rules and Administration hearing Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“The post office is a very difficult situation for us right now.”

That’s how Rick Stream, a Republican elections official from St. Louis County in Missouri, responded to a question Wednesday at a Senate Rules and Administration Committee hearing about concerns over mail-in and absentee ballots not getting to election officials on time as the U.S. Postal Service faces funding and logistical challenges.

Stream said that within his jurisdiction, the percentage of absentee voters jumped from about 10 percent seen in normal circumstances to 45 percent in the most recent election, and he expected that figure to increase with legal mail-in voting in November.

“To be honest with you, senator, we have had problems with the post office since I’ve been in this office, for three-and-a-half years,” Stream said in response to a query from Rules Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Missouri law requires ballots to be received by 7 p.m. on election night in order to be counted, and the state continues to use a complicated system requiring validation from notaries in many cases.

“The delivery times are less than optimal for sure,” Stream said. “We have even proposed having one of our employees work in the post office in our local community of St. Ann, to try to speed up the process, but to no avail.”

Wednesday’s hearing at the Senate Rules panel, which has jurisdiction over election operations matters, was more broadly about preparations for the November election in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The status of the Postal Service became a recurring theme.

The hearing came as talks were underway about what to include in the next round of emergency relief, as the pandemic continues to cause havoc on both people’s health and the economy.

Concerns about the post office’s ability to handle a national election that will largely be conducted by mail because of COVID-19 were bipartisan, despite President Donald Trump’s continued criticism of mail-in ballots.

“There was $10 billion in the CARES Act as a loan to the post office. To my knowledge, it has not happened, and yet the post office is facing imminent insolvency,” Maine Sen. Angus King said. “Given that there are now nine states that predominantly vote by mail and many others who will see a great deal of additional voting by mail, we have to provide them with the infrastructure that votes by mail can be counted.”

King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, noted that foreign actors like Russia and China are continuing to try to undermine U.S. elections by sowing doubts about their legitimacy.

“I feel that that’s something that we really have to attend to, he said of emergency funding for the Postal Service. “We can’t just skirt around the issue of the support for the post office because the president doesn’t like their package rates. This is a matter of fundamental access to the ballot box for the people of America.”

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Blunt responded that he had read about significant issues in primary elections that have taken place during the pandemic, and he suspected there would be litigation in close elections in November.

He cited the issue of ballot envelopes not always being postmarked in states that have ballot postmark deadlines of Election Day or earlier. That has been a particular problem in New York.

“Apparently, the post office often doesn’t cancel prepaid postage, so those envelopes had no postmark, but the law required a postmark before a ballot could be counted,” Blunt said.

Democrats also renewed calls for additional funding for election operations more broadly, pointing to the $3.6 billion that would be allocated under the House-passed coronavirus relief package known as the HEROES Act.

“The lack of urgency from our Senate Republican leadership, and I know you’re trying very hard, Chairman Blunt, to get something done here, but the leadership is not giving us what they really need in providing these desperately needed resources. And that should appall most Americans,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said at the hearing.

Both Schumer and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are former chairmen of the Rules and Administration panel.

The House-passed bill touted by Schumer and Senate Rules ranking Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota also contained some $25 billion for the postal service, to address shortfalls well beyond election administration.

“We need the funding in this HEROES Act to help people vote,” Klobuchar said. “I would rather be putting ballots in a mailbox than people in the hospital. That’s a choice we have for so many voters, and that’s why you see overwhelming support for getting funding.”