What We Still Don’t Get About the Post Office

A former deputy postmaster general gives a clarifying picture of the beloved, embattled institution.

A box reading "United States Postal Service" is seen full of files. An arm is seen taking one out.
Absentee ballot election workers sort ballot applications at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections office in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Friday. Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images

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John Nolan has spent a good chunk of his career working for the United States Postal Service—back in 2000, he’d even served as deputy postmaster general. So all of the controversy surrounding the post office lately has been hard for him to watch. Even while he was at the top of the organization, a lot of people didn’t understand how the Postal Service was run. And he fears that lack of information—and ensuing lack of confidence­—will not only be harmful for the institution but for democracy. I spoke with Nolan for Tuesday’s episode of What Next about what we’re getting wrong about the post office and how you should be planning to vote this year. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ray Suarez: We’ve heard a lot about one of the big structural problems facing the Postal Service: Americans just aren’t sending as many letters, rent checks, and birthday cards through the post office as they used to. Those make up what USPS calls “first-class mail,” which has declined dramatically. Twenty years ago, the Postal Service was anticipating this. You were part of the team planning for it. But it still happened way faster than anyone expected.

John Nolan: When I rejoined the Postal Service in 2000, we were right in the middle of a strategic planning effort. It was anticipated that first-class mail was going to be shrinking, and first-class mail is the franchise: That’s really where the Postal Service covers most of its institutional costs. We set out a 10-year forecast, and the losses we saw in first-class mail happened in the first four years, so our worst case was not a worst case. And whether it’s bank statements or payment of bills or invoices, things started happening very, very quickly. Incentives were given to people who had bank accounts not to get paper bills or payments. And things started to really go into full speed in terms of losses of mail volume.

If you did an e-vite instead of sending your grandmother a birthday card, and if you paid your credit card bill online, you, in effect, were part of what’s giving the Postal Service problems today in 2020.

The fundamental problem is when the letter carrier—for those of you who have door delivery—walks up to your house, if they used to deliver 10 letters and now it’s five, that walk doesn’t get any shorter. The cost of that carrier walking to the front door has gotten higher for every piece of mail that’s delivered. And every year there a million new delivery points. Some mail volume is shrinking, but the number of deliveries with a walk to the front door isn’t getting shorter. And you can see the problem.

Let’s talk about 2020. At the same time the president of the United States was speculating about the unreliability and the inability of the Postal Service to handle mail ballots, the public was seeing pictures of blue mailboxes being loaded onto trucks, seeing pictures of sorting equipment being taken off the line, and being told the post office can’t handle this. This just seems like a perfect storm of bad timing, bad messaging, and bad optics. I’m not sure what it was, but it didn’t do the post office very many favors.

There’s no doubt that the statements by the president certainly damaged the image of the Postal Service in a lot of people’s minds. People who really looked at it and realized it wasn’t true, but it hurt. And you have a postmaster general who comes in, who is a supporter of the president, the inference was immediately made by people that this guy’s come in to trash the organization. Lo and behold, actions are then taken that seem to support that notion, with the mailboxes and the sorting equipment. The optics were terrible, and the perception was that the Postal Service was having service problems and those were caused by the actions taken by the postmaster general.

There have been service issues in certain areas, but they have more to do with the coronavirus than anything else. Mail carriers were getting sick and going into quarantine, for example, and that slowed down mail delivery. But some of the Postal Service changes that alarmed the public were planned before Louis DeJoy even took office in May.

The problem that occurred was, you’re running up to an election and at the same time you’re in the middle of a pandemic, and your service is suffering as a result of some specific things. On top of that, there’s very little or no communication to the mailing industry, to Congress, to the general public regarding what’s about to happen and why. The plans for the removal of the boxes and the equipment were set before the postmaster general came in. Those boxes are not needed because they count the volumes coming out of those boxes, and there just wasn’t any volume there. In terms of the sorting equipment, because of the drop in first-class mail volume and the increased amount of time that the Postal Service has to sort that mail, not only was the equipment not needed, but it was in the way with the increase in package business, which requires more space. Not to mention there’s a cost to maintaining those machines. So in order to serve the package customers better, let’s get these pieces of equipment out of there so that we have room to sort the packages. Good idea operationally. Looks terrible when it’s occurring at a time when you’re not really communicating what’s going on. So a whole lot of things came together that made this seem like a really, really bad idea.

Could this have been helped if the postmaster general or anybody from USPS had spoken to the public about it?

I’m not sure there’s enough money in it to pull those boxes at a time when there are already questions about the Postal Service and what’s going on there. So I don’t know that just communication would have solved the problem. Time might have a strong force there too.

There’s been a knock to the Postal Service in American’s eyes in the past couple of months, and now there is an open question being repeated frequently: whether the Postal Service, as currently constituted, is up to the task of helping Americans vote in the middle of a pandemic. Do you have any question about whether USPS is up to the task?

I really don’t. The amount of volume that we’re talking about, even in the highest case, gets sorted on high-speed sorting machines, of which they still have more than they really need to get the job done on a daily basis. They can process that mail without a problem, and that mail is going to a small, defined number of destination points. They’ve got the firepower to get it done.

I think the key thing is to recognize that if you’re looking at the entire process, the Postal Service is only one entity. And I contend that entity can and will function effectively. It’s working hard with partners in the process. You’ve got the election boards that have to design a ballot and then work with a contractor who’s going to print and mail the ballot. And the Postal Service has come up with a detailed set of instructions on that. That should be followed by the election boards as well as their contractors to make sure the addresses are proper, to make sure every piece of mail in the system can be tracked exactly where it is. What better way of being able to prove exactly where you are in the process and how many ballots are still outstanding, who got their ballots, and who still hasn’t gotten their ballots? If they do all of the things that are recommended and do them as early as possible, not wait till the last minute, you’re going to have a successful vote.

Again, the Postal Service has done this for so long that it thinks it knows what it’s doing. And the instructions it lays out are very specific, very detailed, and, if followed, very successful. It has 500 coordinators named to work with the roughly 11,000 election boards around the country to make sure that if there are any questions, any problems, they know exactly whom to call, and that person knows exactly what the right answers are. The Postal Service, in my opinion, has done a lot of the things necessary to set up for success in this country for a dramatic increase in mail voting.

It sounds like the organizational and institutional challenge is one you are confident can be handled, because, just as of a matter of course, it’s easier to get things mailed from 100 million places to go to a much, much smaller number of places than it is to do the opposite, to get them from a small number of places out to 100 million. So mailing your ballot shouldn’t be a problem. But it sounds like there is a confidence problem, that somebody ought to be speaking with a big voice about whether they can trust the post office. And yet the president of the United States is actively undermining that conversation. Is that a problem for the USPS?

It’s certainly a problem for the Postal Service. it’s a bigger problem for our democratic process. You want people to be able to vote. And people who can’t get to polls, you want them to feel comfortable. When people don’t have confidence in that and don’t use it, can’t get to the polling places, and don’t vote—that’s a problem for our democracy.

I guess the takeaways are: Get ready early, and if you’re an individual voter, mail as soon as you can. Is that fair?

Absolutely right. The other big thing: If you have moved since the last time you voted, you will not get a ballot because the Postal Service cannot forward election mail. If the only address the election board has is your last address that you no longer live at, you need to update that. You need to get that information to the election boards as soon as you possibly can. Everyone who’s been evicted, or has moved for any reason, needs to get to their post office and put in a change of address wherever you are going to be, and needs to contact their election board to make sure that the it knows that you’re not at your last location. Even if you move in the same apartment building from No. 11 to No. 31, mail cannot be forwarded to that other box by law. That’s a big, big deal that a lot of people just don’t recognize. But once you’ve done that, mail early.

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