WASHINGTON (CN) — Amid growing concern that the White House is out to undermine vote by mail in November’s election, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy told a Senate committee Friday that he plans to give mail-in ballots top priority.
“We will deploy processes and procedures that advance any election mail, in some cases ahead of first-class mail,” DeJoy said in a videoconference hearing held by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
But the newly appointed postmaster general also said he has no plans to restore mail sorting machines recently removed from postal facilities.
His testimony follows backlash over controversial changes to the agency, including plans to reduce hours and the ongoing removal of collection boxes, which DeJoy announced last week he will suspend until after the November election.
Democrats are increasingly concerned that the postal service is not ready to handle the dramatic increase in mail-in ballots expected this year, as Americans opt to vote by mail rather than risk exposure to the novel coronavirus at polling places.
While President Donald Trump has made repeated false claims that mail-in ballots carry a substantially higher risk of voter fraud, his own postmaster general admitted Friday to voting by mail in the past.
DeJoy also assured lawmakers that the United States Postal Service has sufficient funding to deliver mail on Election Day, but called for legislative reform to address the agency’s crippled finances.
“We are not self-sustaining,” he testified, adding the agency faces a $10 billion shortfall that will grow to $45 billion over the next 10 years.
DeJoy also balked at accusations that he is working to cripple postal service delivery to subvert voting by mail.
“The insinuation is quite frankly outrageous,” he said.
A Trump donor and former business executive appointed to head USPS in June, DeJoy argued he only made changes to the transportation schedule to get trucks running on a more efficient timeline.
He claimed that 98% of mail delivered by USPS will arrive on time once his plans, now on hold until after the election, are implemented.
But the USPS head also admitted to recent delivery delays that triggered concerns over a possible blow to the integrity of the upcoming election.
“Certainly there was a slowdown in the mail, when our production did not meet the schedule,” he said.
Senator Jacky Rosen reminded DeJoy of the impact of delivery delays on seniors, veterans and service members, asking that USPS provide records to the committee of the data relied on to implement operational changes since he took over the agency.
DeJoy replied: “We’re very transparent,” at first not committing to provide data related to the recent changes, but then later agreeing to send the committee the transportation schedule that he directed the organization to follow.
“If you’re transparent then ergo that means you will provide us the data that you used to base these important decisions that impact people’s lives,” Rosen, a Nevada Democrat, said.
Republicans backed up the postmaster general when he argued his agency faced challenges brought on by Covid-19 that led to service slowdowns.
“For anybody to assume that your service would maintain this high level of standards, when we’re in the midst of a pandemic, I think is quite unrealistic,” Chairman Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said.
But Democrats like Ranking Member Gary Peters of Michigan pointed out that the postal services operated efficiently in the early months of the pandemic, before delivery delays surged in mid-July.
Peters also pressed DeJoy on plans to restore mail sorting machines recently removed from postal facilities.
“There is no intention to do that, they are not needed sir,” the postmaster general said.
DeJoy claimed that removing the machines has not resulted in a drop in sorting capacity, and is intended to make room to sort an increase in packages.
“This has been going on in every election year, and every year for that matter,” he said.
But Senator Margaret Wood Hassan said that if sorting machines like the one left remaining in the largest USPS distribution center in New Hampshire break, all mail delivery is on hold until it is fixed, including sorting ballots.
“That’s not efficient. That delays delivery,” the New Hampshire Democrat said.
The postal agency plans to suspend the closure of postal facilities and the removal of its distinctive blue mailboxes through mid-November in response to concerns raised by lawmakers and customers.
“I promise you, we’re not making any changes until after the election,” DeJoy assured Democrats on Friday.
He testified that both operations were in place long before he arrived. Over the last 10 years, he added, the agency has removed 35,000 of its 140,000 collection boxes around the country, including 700 boxes since his arrival.
But Democrats said constituents have flooded their offices with calls by the thousands in recent weeks to complain about delivery delays by USPS.
The concerns were met by their GOP colleagues with accusations of manufacturing a postal service crisis for political gain.
Johnson admitted there have been some unusual delays, but said Democrats are also “ginning up” concerns from constituents.
“Many of those complaints are highly scripted, and it’s being done for political purpose. There’s absolutely no doubt about that,” the chairman said.