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Postmaster General Suspends Service Changes Until After The Election

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Today brought a sudden reversal in the story of the mail and the vote. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced that he's suspending his controversial cost-cutting plans at the U.S. Postal Service. The move comes amid bipartisan pressure and reports of slowdowns in mail delivery around the country. Those delays were particularly alarming for election officials, who are expecting an unprecedented number of Americans to cast votes by mail this year due to the pandemic. We're joined now by NPR's Miles Parks, who covers voting issues. Hi, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi there.

FADEL: So first off, what exactly did the postmaster announce today?

PARKS: So if you remember, DeJoy came to the Postal Service earlier this summer in May after leading a private logistics company for more than 30 years. And he had promised this sort of organizational realignment aimed at saving money. Some of those changes had gone into effect already, had already started some major - fairly major mail delays across the country. But he essentially said today that that transformation he's planning is now on hold until after November's presidential election to avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail. He said in a statement, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded.

FADEL: Over the past few weeks, we've heard from postal workers and others who've said these changes made it impossible to deliver mail on time. Does today's announcement mean that service will get better?

PARKS: It's still a little unclear. He says sorting machines will not be removed, and overtime will be approved, quote, "as needed." But a number of watchdog groups have already released statements saying they aren't satisfied. Because a lot of these policies that DeJoy implemented when he first got on board were not super-transparent from the beginning, it's still hard to know exactly what today's announcement means. It's not clear whether the sorting machines that were already removed, for instance, are going to be returned or whether just no more sorting machines are going to be removed. Here's former Deputy Postmaster General Ron Stroman talking about today's statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON STROMAN: It raises more questions than it provides answers. And it will be important in the coming days to see if we can get clarity with regard to those questions.

PARKS: Lawmakers will get a chance to get some of those answers on Friday and Monday, when DeJoy is scheduled for congressional hearings.

FADEL: Now, this is a pretty dramatic reversal. What sort of political pressure were DeJoy and the Trump administration under?

PARKS: It was really extraordinary how quickly lawmakers and the public took hold of this issue. You know, it's fairly wonky to be talking about the USPS just a couple months before a presidential election, but it points to what we've seen in public opinion polls that the USPS is the federal government entity that people generally like the most. The entire Democratic Party was galvanized by this, with some lawmakers like Sen. Bernie Sanders even calling for DeJoy to resign. And a number of Republicans asked for him to reverse the changes, too. Many of them represent rural parts of the country, where even if people are skeptical of voting by mail because of what President Trump has said, they still might be more dependent than urban voters on the mail for things like prescriptions.

FADEL: So more than half of voters were expected to cast ballots by mail this fall. How nervous should they be about returning their ballots via the Postal Service?

PARKS: DeJoy specifically said in the statement that the Postal Service is ready to handle whatever volume of election mail receives this fall. And that's obviously a very different message from what President Trump has said, where he's basically said the USPS is not equipped to do that. The biggest message coming from election officials and experts is that voters should not be scared. They just need to be early with your request, with mailing it back. Don't wait until the last minute on any of this stuff. That's what can get you into trouble - is waiting up until the deadline. You need to just get that ballot in the mail and give the post office time to work.

FADEL: That's NPR's Miles Parks. Thank you.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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