DETROIT — It was the last Thursday in August and, again, no mail.
Brenda Hampton, whose family has owned their house on Lawrence Street for 60 years, wanted to know whether it was just her or more widespread, so she slipped on a mask and started canvassing the neighborhood with Big Boi, her white Shih Tzu-poodle mix, by her side.
Ayla Stackhouse, 24, told her that she never got her admissions packet from the community college and missed the enrollment window. James Williams, 83, made the two-mile drive to the post office to drop off his letters because he couldn’t count on handing them to his mail carrier. No one, Hampton learned at the time, could recall seeing a blue-and-white postal truck among the rows of turn-of-the-century homes in Woodward Village in at least three days.
Mail delivery had been erratic all summer in this predominantly Black neighborhood in northern Detroit, and late or missing prescriptions, utility bills and Social Security benefits had become the norm. But now, looking ahead to November, many residents are worried and wondering whether those slowdowns might cost them their votes.
Well-documented disruptions at the U.S. Postal Service have created a new layer of uncertainty about the 2020 election, especially in battleground states such as Michigan where mail ballots could prove pivotal. That dynamic is underscored in Detroit, where a record number of voters have requested absentee ballots and which has recorded some of the worst delivery rates in the country.
Black turnout will almost certainly determine whether President Donald Trump holds onto the state where he beat Hillary Clinton by 10,704 votes in 2016, or cedes it to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. In Wayne County, where Detroit is based, roughly 520,000 Black voters turned out in 2016, about 75,000 fewer than 2012 when President Barack Obama topped the Democratic ticket.
Dwight “Skip” Stackhouse, 73, who lives near his niece Ayla on Lawrence Street, worries that a falloff in Black votes could cost Democrats the election. “It’s a numbers game at that point,” he said. “And that’s why we must come out in droves, in force.”
The Washington Post polling average shows Biden with a seven-point lead in Michigan, where both campaigns have dedicated significant resources and early voting began Sept. 24.
Operational changes under new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy led to mail delays nationwide over the summer, setting off a public backlash, two congressional hearings and lawsuits from fears that the slowdowns might disenfranchise voters. Although DeJoy put some austerity measures on hold — since backstopped by four court orders — and called the timely delivery of election mail his “sacred” duty, suspicions persist.
“It makes me think if they’re messing with the postal system, what are they trying to accomplish?” Hampton, a 69-year-old retired schoolteacher, said on a recent afternoon. “Going five days without mail — I think that’s intentional.”
Trump’s broadsides against mail voting, including baseless assertions that it leads to widespread fraud, fuels much of that anxiety. At last week’s presidential debate, he encouraged supporters to “go into the polls” on Election Day and “watch very carefully,” which some Democrats said rang of the voter intimidation tactics Black people have endured for decades.
Last week, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, filed felony charges against two right-wing operatives and conspiracy theorists on accusations that they tried to intimidate voters through inaccurate robocalls. Messages meant to discourage mailed ballots targeted 85,000 voters in large cities, including 13,000 in the Detroit area, Nessel said.
The delivery delays that DeJoy’s changes set in motion spanned the country but hit Detroit, whose postal workforce was already depleted by the pandemic, particularly hard. Michigan’s congressional delegation received thousands of complaints. On-time mail delivery dropped 19 percentage points, to 65.7%, during the five weeks the directives were in effect, according to a report from Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, the Senate’s top Democrat on the panel in charge of postal oversight.
Although service had rebounded for much of the country by early September, Detroit continued to lag. And many voters here say they are more likely to slide their ballots into a designated drop box or deliver it to the city clerk’s office instead of using the Postal Service.
“I think that’s the goal — to make people lose faith in the systems that we should have been able to always have faith in because it’s the freaking mail,” said Sarah Parks, 29, who has a “We love the USPS” sign in her window to show she does not hold rank-and-file workers responsible for the mail delays.
But Parks, a sign-language-services coordinator at the Henry Ford Health System, is leaning toward voting in person, to counter what she sees as a deliberate attempt by the Trump administration to keep her and her neighbors from voting. “They’re going to make everything that could be an easy way as difficult as possible.”
Rep. Brenda Lawrence, a Democrat and retired postal manager whose district covers parts of Detroit and just northwest of the city, said her constituents’ fears are increasing.
“The president is on the air constantly saying vote by mail is a fraud,” she said, “and my people want to know, ‘Is my vote going to count?’ It’s escalated to a point of panic.”
Many states expanded mail-in voting in response to the pandemic, and an estimated 198 million Americans are eligible. Election officials in Detroit received a record 114,191 requests for mail-in ballots as this week, nearly four times the 33,696 reported the same week in 2016.
For many voters in Detroit, which has a 78% Black population, the service disruptions make voting by mail far less palatable even though it is a safer option during the pandemic.
Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in voting and public opinion, said such reticence is stronger in neighborhoods that have historically been segregated.
If anyone “is motivated to curtail the vote in minority communities,” Hutchings said, “you’re only able to use these ploys if they are not integrated neighborhoods.”
Anxiety in Detroit over voting is shared by Black Americans across the country, of whom 71% say it is easier for White people to vote than Black people, vs. the 34% of White people who hold these views, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted by Ipsos in late August.
The city’s mail issues overlapped with Michigan’s messy Aug. 4 primary. Voters contended with last-minute changes in polling places and widespread problems with the absentee ballot count. Poll books did not match the number of ballots cast. Many residents lost confidence in the city clerk’s competence to run a presidential election in a crucial city for Democrats, voting rights advocates said.
In recent weeks, the secretary of state and city clerk have promised new resources, training and guidelines for ballot counting and sorting. A former state elections director was hired to oversee the election. Last month, a Michigan judge cleared a path for more absentee ballots to be counted in the event of mail delays, ruling that envelopes postmarked by Nov. 2 are eligible even if they show up days later.
Williams, a retired autoworker in Woodward Village, has his doubts. He and his neighbors watched on cable television as DeJoy, summoned before House and Senate committees in late August, insisted that cost-cutting, not politics, motivated the operational changes. The postmaster general has blamed lower-level managers — which represents as much as 10% of the agency work hours — for crackdowns on overtime and said high-profile removals of hundreds of mail-sorting machines and blue collection boxes were in motion well before his arrival in mid-June. Yet his GOP ties — he’s donated more than $2 million to Republican causes and the Trump campaign since 2016 — have raised questions about his priorities.
“They don’t want you to vote, that’s my opinion,” Williams said.
DeJoy told lawmakers that virus-related disruptions had led to “descending levels of consequence” in at least 20 cities, including Detroit. From April through June, the Motor City was second to New York for the nation’s worst mail service, Postal Service records show.
Union and postal leaders attribute the slowdowns to the pandemic, which affected the postal workforce here especially hard, as well as to DeJoy’s directives. Additionally, about a dozen high-speed mail-sorting machines were decommissioned from the processing plant that serves large swaths of the state, union officials said.
“My question was, whose idea was this to implement these changes in the midst of a pandemic?” said Roscoe Woods, president of Local 480-481 of the American Postal Workers Union, which represents about 10,000 employees in Southeast Michigan. “People are losing confidence in the mail.”
A Postal Service spokesman said on-time delivery has improved but remains shy of agency standards. “While we are seeing trend lines moving in the right direction in Detroit,” David Partenheimer wrote in an email, “the Postal Service national operations team is working closely with the Postal Service team in Detroit to better identify places to accelerate those gains.”
Workforce absences are still causing slowdowns, he added, and the agency is working to hire staffers.
Lawrence and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat whose district includes most of Detroit and part of its western suburbs, say they’re urging their constituents not to take any chances with their ballots.
“Bring it directly to the clerk’s office,” Lawrence emphasized. “We carry the entire state.”
In the Northland Gardens neighborhood of Southfield, a northern suburb just over the Detroit line, mid-century ranches and manicured lawns dot tree-lined streets. Smokey Robinson lived here, as did all five members of the Temptations, when Motown Records was the pride of Detroit.
Residents here say they’ve long looked after their letter carrier, making sure she had enough masks and gloves when the pandemic started. So when she briefly stopped working in the spring, early in the pandemic, to care for her homebound children, they noticed. Mail slowed to about twice a week, they said.
But when she returned in August, the postal changes were in full effect and delivery had deteriorated. Merlin Wells, the president of the neighborhood homeowners’ association, said it took four weeks for a package he sent his brother to reach New Orleans. He can’t help but think the slowdowns are intentional.
“To be targeted here … it shows me more how much my vote is worth here and everybody else needs to pay attention,” he said one recent evening, standing outside his sandstone brick rambler as he returned from his engineering job.
“It’s so evil to mess with the post office right now when you know most people are scared to come outside because it’s a worldwide pandemic,” Wells, 48, said. “They’re terrified.”
Just down the street, Marc Hardt noticed that his eBay orders were taking as long as two weeks to arrive. When he called the post office for answers early in the summer, he said, a supervisor told him, ‘If you’re getting mail two or three days a week, you’re lucky,’ ” he recalled. More recently, he could get only a recorded message that said the post office was trying to move the mail, with no way to file a complaint.
When the property tax bill didn’t arrive in August, his wife, Lena, drove to the city clerk’s office to ensure that the payment was on time. The couple, who are in their 70s, expect to return when it comes time to drop off their ballots but say they worry for older neighbors.
The mail delays “definitely target elderly people significantly because they can’t go vote in person,” Marc Hardt said.
Across the street, Ronda Porter, 56, said that when she inquired about erratic mail delivery, a postal supervisor told her that letters and packages were piled up with no one to sort them.
“The lady was just outright blunt, she was honest,” Porter said. “[She said], ‘We got [mail] piled up this high back there. You should go apply for a job.’ … Because they’re that short.”
Porter was so worried that the post office would lose her daughter’s paycheck from the Ford Motor Co., where she helps produce the ventilators the automaker started producing during the pandemic, that she had the post office hold it rather than deliver it.
Porter says she’s determined to vote in person in November if her absentee ballot doesn’t arrive within a comfortable window to mail. She doesn’t want a repeat of the August primary, which she had to skip, because her ballot didn’t show up in her mailbox until a week after the election.