Portlanders worry President Donald Trump may be undermining one of the state's proudest innovations—vote by mail.
On Aug. 15, Eileen Dolan, a 67-year-old retiree, hopped on her bike to run a weekly errand for the Democratic Party: mailing bundles of postcards reminding Oregonians to vote by mail. In Northeast Portland, she pedaled past an arrangement of baby blue balloons, flowers and a headstone-shaped cardboard sign that read "R.I.P. Democracy."
Dolan first thought it might be a memorial for a cyclist killed in traffic. Then she realized: The blue mailbox on the corner of Northeast 70th Avenue and Sacramento Street had disappeared.
"It was just ironic to be mailing those [postcards] from that box and for the box to be gone," Dolan says. "It struck a chord."
The missing mailbox was one of four boxes in Portland and 27 in Eugene removed last week by the U.S. Postal Service, as first reported on wweek.com. Officials cited declining mail volume during the pandemic as the reason for removing the 31 boxes. The agency told WW boxes would only be removed where at least two were stationed.
Dolan is skeptical, given that the sole mailbox stationed at the intersection was gone.
Removing four mailboxes in a city of 627,000 would be a pitiful attempt at voter suppression. But six local letter carriers who spoke to WW say it's just a symptom of measures seemingly aimed at reducing mail flow under the guidance of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump appointee and megadonor.
In recent weeks, some Portlanders have noticed a slowing of their mail delivery—a result, the letter carriers and USPS affiliates say, of new policies and dismantled machinery.
Beyond the removal of blue boxes, Joe Cogan, president of the Portland-area local of the American Postal Workers Union, says the USPS has removed or is preparing to remove more than a quarter of its letter-sorting machines—15 of 50 machines—from the Processing and Distribution Center near Portland International Airport. Nine are already gone.
Larry Guarnero, a steward with the union, tells WW he recently witnessed stacks of letters destined for three local ZIP codes held behind at the facility because they weren't properly processed through the sorting machine in time.
The Postal Service has battled obsolescence for years. Buffeted by the internet and private competitors, the agency has seen first-class mail, its primary source of income, drop 44% since 2006, according to the nonpartisan General Accounting Office.
Trump has said he intends to withhold funding to the USPS ahead of the November general election—one that will rely more heavily than ever on vote by mail as the country surpasses 5 million COVID-19 cases. The president contends, without evidence, that mailed ballots are susceptible to election fraud. Democrats argue he fears vote by mail because it increases voter turnout and most Americans don't want him in office.
On Aug. 18, after receiving national backlash, Postmaster General DeJoy announced he was walking back many of the changes he initiated, including removing blue mailboxes from neighborhoods. Hours after DeJoy's announcement, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum announced her office was suing the Trump administration to block its attempts to limit vote by mail. (Disclosure: Rosenblum is married to the co-owner of WW's parent company.)
Guarnero feels it's too little too late. "I fear the damage has already been done," he says. "At the plant, the machines are already torn up and not functional. They've already reduced the number of machines and post offices available prior to the election."
Jamie Partridge, a retired letter carrier in Portland for 28 years and an organizer with Communities and Postal Workers United, says DeJoy "has walked back a few changes and left in place the most important change, which will delay the mail."
That change is the recent rule that mail trucks are prohibited from leaving even one minute late from the processing plant. This leads to bundles of mail getting left behind and delayed until the next day, Partridge says.
The Multnomah County Elections Division, which has historically assured voters they can safely mail their ballots up to the Thursday before Election Day, is now reevaluating the cutoff date.
"[We are] working closely with the USPS on changes that might impact delivery of mail ballots," elections spokesman Eric Sample said in an email. "Multnomah County Elections will make a decision at a later date as to what the last date to safely mail the ballot back is."
Some election experts no longer trust the USPS to safely handle their ballots.
"I will be using a dropbox for this election until we have a new administration that doesn't mess with the Postal Service," says Bill Bradbury, who served as the state's top elections officer as secretary of state from 1999 to 2009. "It almost makes me want to cry."
In the long term, Bradbury says, Oregon's vote-by-mail system—considered by many the gold standard nationwide—will survive. But for now, he advises voters to drop their ballots in a ballot dropbox that doesn't involve the post office.
Following DeJoy's Aug. 18 announcement, Bradbury says he remains skeptical. "I'm moved that he's saying he's going to something different. Let's see if he does," Bradbury says. "I will wait to see."
Oregon voters already receive ballots about three weeks before Election Day. But Bradbury and others recommend taking steps to ensure Trump cannot alter Oregon's elections.
"I think [vote by mail] has worked too well and been too popular for it to be easily undermined this way," says former Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins, who served from 2015 to 2017. "I think how the politics work out in the next two days will probably be really telling on whether we can continue to count on the post office as a partner."
Atkins says more than half of Oregon voters already use dropboxes. For those who do want to mail their ballots, she says, they should do so 10 to 12 days before the election.
"From a voter's standpoint," Atkins says, "if you have easy access to a dropbox, go that direction. You've increased your odds, for sure, that the post office can't mismanage that ballot."
In Multnomah County, officials feel confident Oregon's 20-year-old vote-by-mail system will go on.
"We have been assured by our local USPS liaison that elections officials and voters should expect the same reliable service we experience each and every election," Sample said. "Multnomah County Elections wants to stress that voters will have the option to safely and securely cast their ballot either by mail or at any official 24-hour ballot drop site."
Eileen Dolan, the Portlander who regularly sends out vote-by-mail postcards every week, still plans to do so. But from now on, she'll drop them off in the blue box closer to her home.
"I'll just go back to the Northeast Stanton box," Dolan says, "while it's still there."