Voting Safely at Home
Air Date: September 19, 2022
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome today’s guest, Amber McReynolds. She’s a Governor at the United States Postal Service, founding director of the National Vote at Home Institute and principal and founder of Strategy Rose. Amber, a pleasure to see you today.
MCREYNOLDS: It’s great to be here. Thank you for having me
HEFFNER: Amber, since your confirmation to the Board of Governors at the USPS, what have you learned most intimately about that organization and how it functions and how it could function better?
MCREYNOLDS: Sure. Well, I was confirmed last summer, so I’m just at a year serving on the Board of Governors. The Postal Service is an incredible organization, founded, actually the year before our constitution was in place. And it’s also outlined in the constitution as an entity that will provide universal service for all Americans and bind the nation together and connect citizens. And that’s been since the founding of our nation. So it’s a critical piece of our history and our infrastructure. And we take our job very seriously, the board, as well as the management team and we have 650,000 employees, so it’s a huge and diverse workforce, over 32,000 locations. And we deliver to about 165 million doors every day. So it’s an incredible operation, it’s an honor to serve and I take it very seriously and will continue to do so.
HEFFNER: For those who are not familiar with the Vote at Home coalition, Amber was, and is a pioneering election administrator and leader in spearheading the shift in Colorado before the pandemic happened so that folks could vote in Colorado by mail. And you took that experience with you to USPS, having led the coalition and wanting to modernize the electoral system so that people can freely vote from any state by mail. What specifically, being on the inside of the Board of Governors now, have you learned about how you can most effectively accomplish, what was your mission at Vote at Home?
MCREYNOLDS: Sure. Well, and, and two different things. I mean, you’re correct. I was an election official for 13 years, left my position in 2018 to go start a nonpartisan non-profit that was focused on improving Vote by Mail systems and access. And we did that in a bipartisan way. The legislation I worked on in Colorado, now nine years ago, was bipartisan, and it was designed by clerks that were Republicans and Democrats and I, myself as an Independent were involved. We did it to improve the customer experience and the voters’ experience and give voters options. And that’s really what it’s about. It’s also about ensuring that the system is fair and accessible and secure and transparent and reliable. And that certainly has always been my mission. The Postal Service, you know, is not by any means an advocacy organization. They are administrators of processes that customers utilize, whether that’s businesses or individuals, or in this case election officials. And the Postal Service has a big role in elections and always has. Separate and apart from the policy conversations around Vote by Mail, the Postal Service is an integral part of election mail, broadly. And that includes a lot of the requirements that were put in place by the federal government and by Congress with the National Voter Registration Act. It includes requirements that were put in place in the help America Vote Act, and also UOCAVA and UMOVO, which were both federal acts and legislation to improve military voting. And the Postal Service has a major role in ensuring that ballots are delivered to not only in-state and in-country military members, but also are overseas citizens. So the Postal Service plays an integral role. Since I got there, obviously given my background in experience in elections, election mail and improving that within the Postal Service is very important.
HEFFNER: When you think of what you hope to accomplish during your tenure to streamline processes and make voting more accessible, but, you know, the mail system overall more seamless and accessible to folks, do you, as a member of the Board of Governors have a particular goal in mind that you specifically hope that the board and the USPS can accomplish when it comes to the effectiveness, speed of delivery, or ways to ensure the accountability of Vote by Mail that were not in place prior to your joining the board?
MCREYNOLDS: So a few things just to be clear, the board is very much a board of, just like a board of directors would be for you know, any Fortune 50 or Fortune 100 company. So the management team has responsibilities over specific actions, and whatnot for the team. And the board is really giving that strategic direction and vision in setting that, and then holding management accountable, obviously. So what I’m trying to do is, you know, given the experience I have, make sure that that election mail and government service, that includes state and local government service, is a priority. And we’ve already demonstrated that since I’ve been on the board with the reorganization of the new team internally, but also the chairman has established a special election mail committee that I chair for the Board of Governors. So we’ve, you know, elevated this to be a priority and we will continue to operate that, you know, election mail committee for the foreseeable future.
And then I think the other piece is, look, I really want to make sure that we are responsive to our customers, namely election officials and already the division and the new head of that division has prioritized that. There’s a huge focus internally, you know, amongst the management team on this. And we will continue at the board level to monitor the metrics, monitor the field performance, and how we’re doing this. The other thing I’ll just say is, you know, the Postal Service has been creating new technologies around tracking, including informed delivery that that was rolled out a few years ago. Many constituents are using that for their mail. Obviously, there’s new tracking technology for packages.
But also there’s something called intelligent mail barcode tracking, which you may recall. I spearheaded an effort with my team when I was at the Denver elections division to launch the first ever ballot tracking system in the country that would track mail ballots. And that was way back in 2009 and 2010, if you can believe it. And that was all based on using that intelligent mail barcode data. So I think that certainly one of what I would like to see is more widespread use of that tracking technology and that tracking information so that election officials have more visibility, transparency, and accountability of election mail. And when I say election mail, that includes ballots, but it also includes other pieces of mail that go in an official capacity from election officials to voters. And there’s other opportunities. You know, I think the national change of address database, which about 35 million Americans used in 2021 to update their addresses, like there’s a huge opportunity for election officials to leverage the national change of address database that’s being, you know, managed by the Postal Service to update voter records, ensure the address lists are accurate and ensure voter are going to get their ballots at their addresses. So those are just a couple of examples. There’s many others that the Postal Service provides support to election officials around the country and will continue to do so and we’ll continue to look for those opportunities for more efficiency, more accountability, more transparency, all in an effort to provide better service for constituents.
HEFFNER: There was concern during the 2020 presidential election about the politicization of the agency, specifically the Postmaster General. Now being on the inside. Are you concerned about that?
MCREYNOLDS: So first in 2020 I think the Postmaster General, and, you know, again, this is, this is a year before I got there, but he was, I think hired and then started around the first part of July. The stories around sorting equipment or slowing down the mail started before he even walked in the door. And, and what I would say is I think that, you know, 2020 there was a lot of misinformation and disinformation around a lot of issues with regards to election mail and elections broadly. And I do think the Postal Service it got caught up in a lot of that bad info and were put in a terrible position. They, like every organization, like every business, like every government entity struggled with COVID. We had very high rates of COVID amongst our carriers, but also the people processing the mail. And the mail continued, the packaging delivery continued. And the Postal Service was providing a frontline critical service during the pandemic that millions and millions and millions of Americans relied on.
And yet they were suffering from COVID impacts to staff and illness and sickness just like everyone else was during that time. So it’s no surprise that they felt some of that, especially as COVID cases spiked during different parts of the year in 2020. And the other thing, you know, there was a lot of news around blue boxes being replaced or moved or sorting equipment being taken out of facilities. That was actually part of a normal process. And actually, I knew that the sorting equipment story was likely not accurate because I had toured many postal facilities, especially in Colorado when I was an election official and years ago, I think it was in 2012, or ‘14 during one of those elections. I toured, you know, the year, the night before an election. And as I was touring, there was some tarps and plastic covering some of the large sorting equipment at the Denver general mail facility.
And I asked them about that. I said, why is that the, you know, equipment tarped? And they said, it’s not, we got new equipment to replace it, but we don’t have enough money to actually pull the old equipment out of the facility because it’s all built into the walls. And it’s from, you know, the seventies and eighties. And it was this very large sorting equipment that had, they just didn’t have enough money literally to pull out of some of these facilities. So some of that movement started in 2020 to make room for newer, not only packaging, but also mail sorting equipment. The pictures and the images, you know, clearly the Postal Service should have perhaps done a better job of, of explaining to the public what they were doing. But it was part of a normal process to replace equipment. Same with the blue boxes, those get moved and replaced.
So a lot of them, if they’re rusted out or older, they need new boxes to replace them. But also if, in a particular area of a town it’s not being utilized, and they can see that with the number of pieces of mail that are getting dropped in those boxes, they will relocate it to a few blocks over or another vicinity where there might be higher traffic or higher usage. So both of those things kind of happen normally. And I do think that, that some of the stories were just incorrect with some of the facts surrounding some of those pieces just, and again, this is based on my experience with both of those issues over a long period of time before coming on the Board of Governors.
HEFFNER: This period of time, anticipating the midterm elections in 2022, do you feel that we are more equipped to handle the changing landscape, which really in, in many states meant a significant increase of their share of mail-in votes?
MCREYNOLDS: So, and, you know, even with all the issues I mentioned in 2020 the Postal Service performed really well in the general election with regards deliver to delivery. The on-time delivery for mail ballots specifically was the highest it had been in any presidential prior on record for the postal service. So they really, you know, dealt with those significant COVID impacts, but also responded to the moment in 2020 with how many people were voting by mail, and really tried to make sure that all operations were prioritizing and focusing on that particular part of the mail stream. And, and it worked, and they, they had good performance in November of 2020. And then 2021, you know, with some of the improvements that I’ve already mentioned with the less of an impact with COVID sickness and illness by carriers and by other workers within the postal stream, delivery got even better in 2021 during the elections that were held then. And similarly, during this primary season in 2022, those delivery, those on-time delivery rates have continued to go up and, and, and be more positive.
So I think all these things combined are working. Can we do more? Yes, we can do more. The staff is focused on our core mission, which is delivering the mail on time and making sure that we provide universal service. And the board is focused on all the metrics around that. We want to make sure that we’re operating at a level that the American people can, can be proud of and can get good service with it. And we’re going to continue to, to do that. And I have no doubt that the team will make sure that all the election mail and voters’ ballots get delivered on time. And if issues arise that those get addressed immediately.
HEFFNER: That’s reassuring because with the lack of confidence in U.S. government institutions right now, the USPS has been a sacred ground. And to hear you reassuring the public that you can trust the USPS, the Postal Service with your mail-in ballot and all of your other mail for that matter. I think it, it makes a real difference.
MCREYNOLDS: Yeah. That that’s right. And I think, you know, look, this has been our, one of it’s the oldest institution, I think that we have and like I said, there, there has been problems over the last few decades, whether it’s management or cost issues. And, you know, we’ve been underwater for many years, which means we haven’t been investing in newer technology and modernizing our facilities. And now we’re doing that. But this, this doesn’t get fixed overnight by any means. It’s a massive organization, you know, like I said, 650,000 employees, 32,000 plus facilities, all of the, all of this is going to take time, but certainly there is a plan and a focus in place. And like, I always say, look, if we need to make adjustments to that plan, due to other circumstances that arise, or other issues that pop up, we need to be ready to do that. But what’s great is that, you know, the team in conjunction with the board before I arrived did work out a plan. It’s a ten-year Delivering for America plan. There’s many great positive things in that plan that that will help all delivery times get, get better across the board and also create better working environments for our workers. And frankly, plan for the future, because all of this is changing in a very dynamic way, and nobody expected a worldwide pandemic. And the Postal Service has been, you know, on the front lines of that responding. And like, you know, like you probably know, we also did the test kit rollout, which is tremendously successful. We did the full supply chain on that. So the preparing of those test kits, handling the request through the website, and then delivering all those test kits. And so millions and millions and millions of Americans have benefited from having those extra test kits out there while COVID cases have been fluctuating over the last year or so. So that was a significant project. We’re very proud of it. The team turned it around very quickly. And I think, you know, it’s, it’s also another example of how the Postal Service can rise to the occasion and serve the American public in a very positive way
HEFFNER: To give folks a sense of that landscape, of course, in your native Colorado, as well as in Washington State and Oregon, folks vote entirely by mail. In 2020 in many states that increase was significant, manyfold. You know, there’s states like Vermont and New Jersey and California, Nevada, that increased markedly. But in most states, including the so-called swing states or very competitive, purple states, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and even in less populous, more conservative states that did pride themselves and still do, on voting in person there were significant increases from, you know, really minimal voting by mail to you know, 25 to 30, even close to half of the population voting by mail. Do you think that is going to stick with these upcoming midterm elections, that we will retain the large populations that are voting by mail in most states?
MCREYNOLDS: Well, so a few things, I mean, first, just, I just want to clarify. You mentioned Colorado Washington, Oregon. So yes, we deliver a ballot to active registered voters before each election, and they can vote that ballot at home and you can mail it back, or you can drop it off at a drop box or drive up, drop off, or in person. So you have a lot of options. In fact, more than 70 percent of Coloradans usually vote by returning their ballot to an official drop box and actually not mailing it back. And then we also, Colorado has an extensive in-person voting network, a vote center. So if you want to vote in-person you can do that during the two weeks prior to an election or on election day. So we’re all options here, but we do proactively deliver a ballot to voters through the mail stream so that they can have that choice and they have that expanded access and they can make the best decision for them in the period of time that they have.
And then on all the expansions, you mentioned California. You didn’t mention Utah, Utah actually went to a full Vote at Home system right after Colorado did. It’s obviously a very red state traditionally, and they’ve had Vote at Home for a long time. Arizona was more than 80 percent Vote by Mail during the 2020 cycle and prior. So this, you know, what’s unfortunate about all this is unfortunately one candidate and some of his followers decided to politicize a method of voting that has been accessible for every single American, every voter, regardless of partisan stripes, for decades and going back all the way to the civil war. Many states like Florida and Arizona have used it widely, and voters in those states have used it to vote and vote safely and all of that. And unfortunately one candidate decided to politicize this because he felt it wasn’t going to benefit his interests during the election. And so now we’ve got to, we’ve got to respond and fight back on that misinformation and that disinformation. There’s even a new documentary out called “Democracy Versus the Big Lie” that dives into a lot of these issues around mail ballots. So I think…
HEFFNER: He didn’t, he didn’t politicize it as much as de-legitimize it. I mean, he…
MCREYNOLDS: Both, both, both. Yeah, definitely both. And frankly, he also is somebody who’s been voting by mail for many years, along with the majority of the senators in the U.S. Senate. Most of them actually use Vote by Mail to vote, especially if they happen to be in DC during their, during a respective election. So you know, a lot of the politicians have been using it, but yet many of them that have been using it decided to politicize it or attack it, which is unfortunate. And hopefully, you know, we can get past that. I think the, you know, biggest and most important thing is for voters to go to the trusted sources of information on this. And that is your local election official. It is not a partisan politician that doesn’t run elections. It is the local election official, or the chief election officials in the state. They’re the ones with the best information on this.
And I think voters are going to make the choices that work for them. If they decide they want to go and vote in person, have that option. If you want to vote by mail, you have the option in every single state. People always say to me, well, some states don’t have Vote by Mail. Every state has one option or another to Vote by Mail. It’s harder in some states than it is in other states, but the option is there. And you can check out the requirements and rules in your state to determine if you’re eligible and what the deadlines are to request a ballot, but every state offers it in one form or another. And we’ll see what happens with what voters choose and the choices they make this November.
HEFFNER: Amber we’re about out of time. But I must ask you about this with the overturning of Roe, one of the preserved forms of both contraception and reproductive care is through the mail, and specifically abortion medication as opposed to having a procedure or surgery. There is very clear signs that in states that have, that have banned abortion, that has now been sanctioned by the Supreme Court that there is full enforcement of that. And one of the things that is a concerning possibility of that enforcement is the confiscation of abortion pills that are delivered by mail. How are you going to ensure accountability so that states are not confiscating mail, or particular political agendas are leading to folks having their mail confiscated?
MCREYNOLDS: Well so a few things. So first the, the Postal Service is a federal entity, and our employees are federal employees that provide service in every state. Secondly, we do not get in the business of monitoring, you know, medication or people’s medication that are delivered by their doctors or, you know, prescribed and, and sent via mail. Like that is not something that we get involved in doing. We leave those decisions to the provider and the customer that’s, you know, receiving that package or medication. So that is not in our domain to monitor in any way. We’re not going to get in the middle of that. In terms of, we have not seen any states attempt to disrupt or interfere with the delivery of mail. Again, this is a federal process. Our employees are federal employees. And then also I would just point out, you know, the FDA approves, you know, medications, and then the providers can send those out depending on what the needs are for customers. So, I don’t anticipate the Postal Service modifying any of our current procedures and processes for delivering medications.
HEFFNER: So in, in, in a word you’re not concerned at the moment about states interference in that those federal processes and the federal mail delivery because that’s, that’s what I was alluding to, governors whose policies are so fervently…
HEFFNER: Anti-Choice or anti reproductive care that, that they would take extreme measures, but you’re not concerned about at this moment?
MCREYNOLDS: I think we’ll, we’ll see what happens. Right now we have not seen any direct impact after the decision. But it’s, you know, something that we will certainly monitor because it is mail matter that we are delivering and, and like all mail matter, I mean, we are getting you know, pieces of mail or packages from point A to point B, that’s our role. And, you know, if there’s attempted interference with that, that impacts other provisions of our requirements, then you know, of course we’re going to have to get involved at this point. I haven’t seen anything happen yet. That doesn’t mean it won’t. It doesn’t mean that I’m not concerned, or others aren’t concerned about that. But again, we will, we will abide by our standards, our procedures, our process, and what we’re required to do under the law.
HEFFNER: Amber McReynolds, a member of the Board of Governors at the USPS, founding director at the National Vote at Home Institute and principal and founder at Strategy Rose. Thank you for joining me today.
MCREYNOLDS: Thank you.
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