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Postal slowdown sparks claims of plot to undermine US vote

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Washington (AFP)

The United States Postal Service is popularly known for delivering mail despite snow, rain or heat, but it faces a new foe in President Donald Trump.

Ahead of the November 3 elections in which millions of voters are expected to cast ballots by mail due to the coronavirus, Trump has leveled an unprecedented attack at the USPS, opposing efforts to give the cash-strapped agency more money even as changes there have caused widespread delays in delivering letters and packages.

"They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots," Trump told Fox News on Thursday, calling the money "fraudulent."

"But if they don't get those... that means you can't have universal mail-in voting."

On Saturday, Trump continued his assault on mail-in voting by telling reporters it would be a "catastrophe" and retweeting articles and comments alleging fraud.

The Democratic opposition has sharply condemned Trump's statements, with some lawmakers claiming that the president is plotting to snarl the post office to undermine voting, create uncertainty and win a second term.

"Pure Trump. He doesn't want an election," said Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

Biden's running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, tweeted: "We cannot let Donald Trump destroy the United States Postal Service."

Trump, asked by a reporter Saturday if he was trying to hobble the USPS, replied: "No, not at all."

But the concerns are unlikely to disappear.

Reflecting the escalating nature of the controversy, former president Barack Obama has also weighed in.

"What we've never seen before is a president say, 'I'm going to try to actively kneecap the Postal Service ... and I will be explicit about the reason I'm doing it,'" Obama said in a podcast with a former aide.

On Saturday, protesters gathered at the Washington home of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, blaring horns and banging pots in anger.

USPS spokesman David Partenheimer attributed changes at the agency to its poor financial state.

"We are not slowing down election mail or any other mail," he told AFP.

"The Postal Service is in a financially unsustainable position, stemming from substantial declines in mail volume and a broken business model," he explained.

"We face an impending liquidity crisis," Partenheimer said, calling on Congress and regulators to enact reforms.

- Meanwhile, in Congress... -

The postal troubles come as Congress remains deadlocked over a new stimulus bill to follow the $2.2 trillion CARES Act package passed in March as the coronavirus crisis erupted.

Democrats have proposed giving the USPS billions of dollars in funding, and Trump -- after first saying he opposed that -- said Friday that perhaps some new funds could be included in a compromise.

On Saturday he blamed the Democrats again, telling reporters they "aren't approving proper funding for postal, and they're not approving the proper funding for this ridiculous thing that they want to do which is all mail-in voting."

"You're right, there has to be more resources, I agree," he said.

Trump said candidly in April that mail-in voting "doesn't work out well for Republicans" and has repeatedly described such ballots as prone to fraud.

Experts disagree.

A study this year by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice found that "it is... more likely for an American to be struck by lightning than to commit mail voting fraud."

In an interview, American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dimondstein blamed the nationwide slowdowns in mail deliveries on measures implemented by DeJoy, a Republican fundraiser appointed by Trump who took office in June and pledged to reform the agency.

Dimondstein said overtime has recently been reduced, meaning carriers leave distribution centers immediately rather than wait 10 or 15 minutes for delayed mail, as they previously did.

That, combined with the around 40,000 workers who have had to quarantine since March because of COVID-19, has created delays.

DeJoy -- defended by Trump as a "fantastic man" -- has "arbitrarily reduced hours of work of the employees, but the same work is still there to get done," Dimondstein said.

- States act -

As concerns mount over the USPS's ability to handle the expected surge in ballots, states are working to ensure their residents' votes count.

Pennsylvania this week asked its supreme court to push back its deadline for accepting mail-in ballots.

In a court filing, it cited a letter from a USPS official to the state warning of "a risk that ballots requested near the deadline under state law will not be returned by mail in time to be counted under your laws."

The Washington Post reported on Friday similar notices were sent to 45 other states and the District of Columbia.

Jon Tester, a Democratic senator from Montana, also has asked DeJoy in writing to explain reports that the USPS was removing mailboxes from towns in the state.

Late Friday, a USPS spokesman told CNN that removal of mailboxes was being halted in 16 states, including Montana, and parts of two others.

Dimondstein said he hoped Trump's "brazen challenge to the democratic right -- that somehow he's going to starve this institution to suppress the vote -- somehow gives more impetus to Congress to react."

"Congress needs to act, and they need to act soon," he said.

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