Can You Have Your Mail-In Ballot Delivered as First Class Mail?

As social media users expressed alarm over United States President Donald Trump’s administration’s apparent efforts to sabotage the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), one Twitter user’s suggestion caught traction on August 14 2020.

That account wrote:

Heard this from a postal worker- IF you return your ballot BUT place 2 First Class stamps on it (instead of the business reply free postage provided) the USPS MUST deliver your letter AS First Class BECAUSE you PAID for First Class! It CANNOT be put into Bulk Mail! DO IT!

A spokesperson for the Portland, Oregon chapter of the American Postal Workers Union — which represents more than 200,000 current and retired USPS workers — confirmed to us that using one first-class stamp would be enough to ensure that a mail-in ballot would be sorted individually.

“One 55-cent stamp will get it where it’s supposed to go,” she said.

For some voters, the issue could be moot; a USPS staffer told us that because state and local election boards have the ability to design their own ballots and election materials, some boards may already be paying for them to have them classified as first-class mail.

The USPS has urged voters to use first-class mail “or an expedited level of service” to send their ballots in, and to be clear on the submission requirements for their local jurisdictions. An agency spokesperson told the Salt Lake City Tribune in a statement:

The Postal Service recommends that domestic, nonmilitary voters mail their ballots at least one week prior to their state’s due date to allow for timely receipt by election officials.

The Los Angeles Times reported that there is a difference in processing times between regular mail-in ballots and first class mail:

Election officials typically use marketing mail (or nonprofit bulk) to send out ballots, which is cheaper than using first class mail. The delivery timelines, however, are different: Marketing mail takes three to 10 days, while first class mail is delivered in two to five days. The postal service has traditionally treated election mail with priority, even if it’s not sent first class.

But USPS General Counsel Thomas Marshall implied in letters to election officials that marketing mail delivery standards would be enforced for election mail.

“Using Marketing Mail will result in slower delivery times and will increase the risk that voters will not receive their ballots in time to return them by mail,” Marshall wrote in language later repeated in [a USPS] statement.

Democratic Party Sen. Chuck Schumer, though, has accused the USPS of price-gouging voters.

“The postal service has informed some states they may need to pay a first class rate to deliver ballots rather than the normal rate, nearly tripling the cost at a time when people will have to vote by mail in record numbers because they can’t or won’t go vote in person,” he wrote on August 11, 2020. “This would be an outrageous policy that should alarm every American. Democrats will fight this with every tool at our disposal.”

According to the Washington Post, the agency also sent letters to 46 states and the District of Columbia informing them that it could not guarantee that ballots sent by mail would arrive in time to be counted for the November 3 2020 general election:

Some states anticipate 10 times the normal volume of election mail. Six states and D.C. received warnings that ballots could be delayed for a narrow set of voters. But the Postal Service gave 40 others — including the key battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida — more-serious warnings that their long-standing deadlines for requesting, returning or counting ballots were “incongruous” with mail service and that voters who send ballots in close to those deadlines may become disenfranchised.

The only states to not receive the warnings from USPS were Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Rhode Island.

The Twitter post was shared more than 8,000 times on the platform amid escalating concerns over the United States Postal Service’s autonomy and ability to handle voting by mail amid the COVID-19 pandemic following the appointment of Louis DeJoy — a fundraiser for Trump — as Postmaster General in June 2020. Hours after the tweet began spreading online, CNN reported that the agency’s inspector general launched an investigation into DeJoy’s actions since taking the position, in response to calls by Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

The Massachusetts lawmaker had asked the inspector general to investigate not just DeJoy’s new policies for the USPS but whether he had “met all ethics requirements.” DeJoy reportedly still owns a $30 million stake in a separate company that is a USPS contractor and bought stock in Amazon, which operates a delivery service that competes with the agency.

Criticism of DeJoy intensified following reports of several mailboxes being removed from use in Portland, Oregon (which the USPS attributed to an overall decline in outgoing mail) and the decommissioning and dismantling of 671 mail-sorting machines around the U.S., which the Post reported had the capacity to sort a combined 21.4 million pieces of paper mail per hour.

The American Postal Workers Union, which represents more than 200,000 current and retired USPS employees, filed a grievance over the scuttling of the sorting machines. But union president Mark Dimondstein expressed confidence to the newspaper that his colleagues could still handle the expected surge in mail-in voting in November.

“Piece of cake for postal workers,” he said.

DeJoy released a statement on August 18 2020 saying that he would suspend what he called “longstanding operational initiatives” that had raised concern from the public until after the election.

“I want to assure all Americans of the following: Retail hours at Post Offices will not change,” the statement read. “Mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes will remain where they are. No mail processing facilities will be closed. And we reassert that overtime has, and will continue to be, approved as needed.”

But the skepticism toward DeJoy did not subside; a day after the USPS posted his statement, WOOD-TV in Michigan reported that mail sorting machines inside the agency’s office in downtown Grand Rapids were being dismantled per an order from him.

Internal sources say mail sorting machines are being dismantled at downtown GR post office. Process started yesterday. Order came from Postmaster General DeJoy. @WOODTV

— Heather Walker (@_HeatherWalker) August 19, 2020

Three hours after their initial report, WOOD said that the dismantling had stopped.

That same day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a statement criticizing DeJoy for not reversing course on the actions he had already taken since taking over the USPS.

“The Postmaster General frankly admitted that he had no intention of replacing the sorting machines, blue mailboxes and other key mail infrastructure that have been removed and that plans for adequate overtime, which is critical for the timely delivery of mail, are not in the works,” Pelosi said. “All of these changes directly jeopardize the election and disproportionately threaten to disenfranchise voters in communities of color. At the same time, we are highly concerned that the slowdown of the delivery of medicines to veterans is not being sufficiently addressed.”

Trump himself admitted in a Fox News interview that his administration was holding up an agreement with Democratic Party lawmakers over a new stimulus package over the inclusion of $3.5 billion in USPS funding.

“They need that money in order to make the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” he said. “Now, if we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting, they just can’t have it.”

The suggestion to use first-class mail also gained visibility following the spread of similar posts (presented as “an inside tip from a postal worker”) urged voters to personally take their ballots to their local election boards or polling sites:

Trump has repeatedly claimed — entirely falsely — that mail-in voting would lead to a “rigged” election. But both he and First Lady Melania Trump used absentee ballots to vote by mail in Florida. At least fifteen other officials in his administration have done the same.

Update August 19, 2020 1:27 p.m. PST: Updated with notes on additional mail sorting machine scuttling and statements from Louis DeJoy and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.