Mail delays turn into election-year fight in Georgia and Congress

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson and DeKalb County Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson speak Tuesday during a press conference near a U.S. Postal Service office in Decatur. The congressman decried delays in mail delivery that he described as politically motivated "sabotage." (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson and DeKalb County Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson speak Tuesday during a press conference near a U.S. Postal Service office in Decatur. The congressman decried delays in mail delivery that he described as politically motivated "sabotage." (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Georgia congressmen from both political parties called for mail delivery delays to be corrected Tuesday as the U.S. postmaster general announced he was suspending initiatives that could have held up absentee ballots.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, flanked by postal employees and union leaders at a south DeKalb County post office, condemned what he described as a politically motivated “sabotage” and an attack on democracy.

Johnson said President Donald Trump “is engaged in a conspiracy to deprive Americans of their right to a full and free election.”

But Republican U.S. Rep. Jody Hice said the U.S. Postal Service is already taking steps to speed up delivery and standardize delivery times by having letter carriers presort the next day’s mail each afternoon.

Hice said he’s only seen “pockets of slowdowns.”

“Any delays in delivery need to be corrected immediately, and I’m committed to working with the postmaster general to see that happens,” said Hice, the ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee. “Many Democrats are jumping the gun on blaming the sporadic reports of mail delays on the new pilot program or, even worse, conspiracy theories that any slowdowns are politically motivated.”

The mail has become a politicized issue in an election year when voters are depending on the Postal Service to deliver millions of absentee ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

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An individual deposits letters into a mailbox outside a post office in Decatur on Tuesday. The U.S. Postal Service, in a July 29 letter to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, recommended that voters request an absentee ballot at least 15 days before Election Day, and that they mail completed ballots at least one week in advance, by Oct. 27. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

An individual deposits letters into a mailbox outside a post office in Decatur on Tuesday. The U.S. Postal Service, in a July 29 letter to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, recommended that voters request an absentee ballot at least 15 days before Election Day, and that they mail completed ballots at least one week in advance, by Oct. 27. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Combined ShapeCaption
An individual deposits letters into a mailbox outside a post office in Decatur on Tuesday. The U.S. Postal Service, in a July 29 letter to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, recommended that voters request an absentee ballot at least 15 days before Election Day, and that they mail completed ballots at least one week in advance, by Oct. 27. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

The debate will reach the U.S. House of Representatives next week, when Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is scheduled to testify before the House Oversight Committee about operational changes that contributed to mail arriving late.

Mail took longer to reach residents and businesses following the elimination of overtime and instructions for postal workers to leave behind late-arriving mail until the next day.

DeJoy announced Tuesday that he will approve overtime as needed, keep mail processing equipment in place and maintain retail hours at post offices.

“To avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded,” DeJoy said in a statement.

Mitchell Taylor, the vice president of a local union representing postal service clerks, said mail has begun piling up inside some post offices.

He said that is due in part to the overtime restrictions during a time when many employees are already out because of the coronavirus.

“Everything that has been done has been to undermine the sanctity of the mail and the great Postal Service, which represents every community,” Taylor said.

The House of Representatives is expected to return to Washington this week to vote on legislation that would block the recent operational changes at the Postal Service.

A potential slowdown in delivery of absentee ballots could result in votes being voided if they’re received by county election offices after Election Day in Georgia. State law requires that for absentee ballots to be counted, they must be received before polls close.

The U.S. Postal Service, in a July 29 letter to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, recommended that voters request an absentee ballot at least 15 days before Election Day, and that they mail completed ballots at least one week in advance, by Oct. 27.

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Mitchell Taylor, the vice president of the Atlanta Metro Area Local APW union, speaks about the current morale of U.S. Postal Service clerks during a press conference Tuesday. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Mitchell Taylor, the vice president of the Atlanta Metro Area Local APW union, speaks about the current morale of U.S. Postal Service clerks during a press conference Tuesday. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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Mitchell Taylor, the vice president of the Atlanta Metro Area Local APW union, speaks about the current morale of U.S. Postal Service clerks during a press conference Tuesday. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

“There is a significant risk that, at least in certain circumstances, ballots may be requested in a manner that is consistent with your election rules and returned promptly, and yet not be returned in time to be counted,” wrote the Postal Service’s general counsel, Tom Marshall.

Georgia election officials plan to begin mailing absentee ballots by Sept. 20, and they expect record numbers of people to vote remotely and avoid human contact at polling places. In the state’s June 9 primary, nearly half of all voters cast absentee ballots.

About 15 protesters lined the streets outside Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s office in Buckhead on Tuesday to oppose actions that undermine the Postal Service.

“I’m very concerned about the fact that mail-in voting is being prevented,” said Connie Wernersbach, a protester from Fayetteville holding a sign that said “Arrest DeJoy.” “This election is so important, and it’s going to be a disaster.”

To avoid the potential for mail delivery delays, Georgia voters can return their absentee ballots in drop boxes set up in many counties, according to rules the State Election Board passed this year.

Absentee ballot drop boxes must be located on government property and monitored by video cameras for security. They also must be securely fastened and built with a slot that prevents ballot tampering, damage or removal.