Condos monitoring Postal Service situation; concerned about ‘defective’ ballots

Drive-by mailboxes bearing the logo of the United States Postal Service on Elmwood Avenue in Burlington. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos says he will "monitor the situation" at the U.S. Postal Service, amid concerns that recent policy changes at the agency could disenfranchise voters who opt to vote by mail during the Covid-19 crisis. 

Condos also raised concerns about roughly 6,000 "defective" ballots, which couldn't be counted because voters filled them out improperly. Seven Days first reported on the defective ballots. 

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has been at the center of the country’s political debate of late, due to his cost-cutting efforts at an organization whose services are essential to carrying out an election, especially amid Covid-19 outbreaks. 

The Postal Service sent letters to 46 states last week warning them that it can't guarantee that absentee ballots sent in the mail would arrive in time to be counted on election day, the Washington Post reported.

In recent weeks, DeJoy has eliminated overtime for postal workers, and told workers to leave mail behind if it slows down their routes.  Postal workers have said these changes are causing mail delays. 

The postal service also plans on removing hundreds of mail processing machines ahead of the election.

Condos said that Vermont received a letter from the USPS on Monday, which stated that ballots should be mailed by Oct. 27 at the latest to ensure that they are counted, but that voters should be able to vote by mail smoothly. The election is one week later, on Nov. 3. 

"Under our reading of Vermont's election law many of your voters should have sufficient time to receive, complete and return their ballots," the letter states, according to Condos. 

Condos noted that his office already asks voters to send in their ballots at least a week ahead of the election, unless they want to drop them off in person to their town clerks. 

But he said that he was concerned about the recent measures at the Postal Service impacting the election in November.  

"If the Postal Service steps back from this prioritization of election mail it would not only disenfranchise voters, but basically be a matter of voter suppression, and I certainly hope it doesn't come to that," Condos said. 

The secretary of state said that his office "will monitor the situation and adjust as needed."

"If we find that it's taking two weeks to get ballots back, then we would change our message to say 'Okay, you need to get your ballot into the mail two weeks before,'" Condos said. 

"But we don't believe that that's going to be necessary."

Jim Condos
Secretary of State Jim Condos discussed the record-breaking voter turnout in the 2020 primary at a Democratic party rally in Montpelier on August 13, 2020. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Condos added that his office has been in touch with a representative at the postal service who has "assured" state officials that "they are giving high priority to election mail." 

A regional spokesperson for the USPS did not respond to a request for comment about the November election, or service in Vermont. 

The postmaster general and President Donald Trump have come under fire from Vermont's congressional delegation. 

In a statement on Monday, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt, blasted DeJoy, who is a former fundraiser for Republican Party, and a major Trump donor. 

"The President is leaning on his mega-donor, hand-picked Postmaster General to cripple the Postal Service by removing critical sorting machines, firing expert career professionals and changing policies that have long ensured that the mail is delivered on time," Welch said.

"He is doing it all at a time when a record number of Americans are expected to vote by mail."

Welch is supporting Democratically-backed legislation that would require the postal service to maintain the level of service it had in place in January of this year. 

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., also criticized Trump over his management of the Postal Service on Friday.  

"Pres. Trump is seeking to delay mail —medicines, paychecks, absentee ballots, more—to VTers & countless Americans for his personal, political gain," Leahy tweeted. "Democrats will do everything we can to stop him from sabotaging the USPS which is so vital during this pandemic."

In a Tweet on Saturday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called on DeJoy to resign. 

About 20 people gathered in front of the Post Office on State Street in Montpelier on Monday afternoon to protest DeJoy’s leadership. 

"I was inspired by our national situation and the violation of our civil rights," said Sarah Franklin, who organized the informal protest. "Our goal is to indict, impeach and remove DeJoy. He is disassembling the machinery that will make a fair election possible."

Trump has defended DeJoy's leadership, and said that he is trying to save money at the agency. 

"He's a fantastic man. He wants to make the Post Office great again," Trump told reporters Saturday.  

“The steps he’s taking are trying to stop the tremendous losses that have taken place for many many years,” Trump added.’

‘Defective’ ballots 

Turnout in Vermont's primary election last week—in which the majority of Vermonters voted using absentee ballots— shattered previous records. According to the latest numbers provided by Condos, 168,000 people cast ballots in the Aug 11 election. 

The previous record was hit in 2000, when 122,000 people voted during the primary. The 6,000 uncounted ballots come out to about 5% of all votes cast. 

Condos said that most commonly town clerks have had to throw out ballots because when people voted for candidates in more than one party's primary election, or failed to certify their vote with a signature. 

Diane Blodgett opens mail-in ballot envelopes at a polling place at the Barre City Auditorium on August 11, 2020. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

He said town clerks also threw away envelopes that didn't contain all three ballots that they received in the mail—the Democratic, Republican and Progressive tickets. While voters only fill out one ballot, they are required to send back the other unmarked ballots as well. 

More than 3% of the ballots cast in the primary were found to be defective— in Vermont that number is typically closer to 1%. 

Condos suspects this in part because the state saw a significant number of first time primary voters in an election with high participation. 

He expects there will be less confusion, and fewer defective votes in the general election, when voters only have to return one ballot. 

Still, Condos said that his office will be meeting soon with town clerks to go over what happened, and how to mitigate defective ballots in the future.  

He said he was concerned about the number of defective ballots.

"I want to see 100% of the votes that come in counted," Condos said. 

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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