A woman places a letter in a USPS collection box at the Encino Park Station on Aug. 17. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Recent reports that delays in mail service and sorting machines removed from San Antonio’s main post office just months before general elections have raised concerns among residents and government officials, including U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio) who toured the General Mail Facility in San Antonio on Wednesday.

“Even my own mom had an issue getting medicine on time that she’s usually able to get in a few days, and others have shared similar stories,” Castro said. He told reporters following the tour that six sorting machines had been removed from the facility, but that he did not witness a backlog of mail stacking up. 

However, Carlos Barrios, a mail processing clerk and clerk craft director for the San Antonio Postal Workers Union, who accompanied Castro and a general manager on Wednesday’s tour of the post office said the congressman was misled and told half-truths in response to his questions about mail delays and dismantling sorting machines. 

It is unlikely the machines will be reinstalled any time soon, Barrios said, as it took mechanics three weeks to remove them and parts already have been “cannibalized.” Mail that had been stacking up for weeks was removed just prior to the congressman’s visit and Barrios said he was told by a plant manager it was because he didn’t want Castro to get the wrong impression that there are mail delays.

He said, in his experience, that is frequently the case when officials start asking questions of the postal service. However, “this is a congressman, that’s why it really bugged me. I felt he drew better respect than that.”

U.S. Representative Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio) is interviewed by the media following a visit to the United States Postal Service facility on Perrin Beitel Road on Wednesday. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The coronavirus pandemic has raised tensions among advocates for absentee, or mail-in, voting, especially for those who are at particular risk of infection or poor outcomes, and those who allege mail-in voting contributes to voter fraud. 

Of the 140 million Americans who voted in the 2016 presidential elections, 41 percent of all ballots were cast through in-person early voting or absentee voting, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Eighty percent of absentee ballots were returned to elections officials and 99 percent of returned ballots were counted.

The timing of the postmaster general’s decision to make changes in the postal service has been categorized as an intentional effort to thwart voting and more than a dozen states have filed lawsuits against the Trump administration and the postmaster general. 

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“There’s a question for the people in Washington that made this decision, why you decided to scrap them now,” Castro said. “We’re going into a political season where it’s important that every piece of mail that’s sent arrives at its destination.”

Barrios added that longtime postal workers are frustrated with ongoing mail delays, often willing and able to process mail but told by leadership to stand by while the mail stacks up. 

“If you delay it, now everything that comes behind it is delayed as well,” he said. “We all took an oath that we would not delay the mail. If [officials] want to know the truth, they should go to the people who have a vested interest.”

To raise awareness of the issues involving the postal service, members of the San Antonio Postal Workers Union are planning to picket outside the main post office on Perrin Beitel Rd. on Sept. 3. 

At the end of the mail facility tour, Barrios said one of Castro’s aides asked for his phone number and they spoke later. Castro’s spokesman then provided this statement:

“If this conduct is true, it’s outrageous that USPS management would attempt to deceive the people of San Antonio about the condition of postal operations. I expect an explanation from USPS leadership, and an immediate reversal of these delays: deliver the people’s mail now. 

“I appreciate the dedicated postal workers who are speaking up when they see something wrong.”

Castro said he will vote in favor of the Delivering for America Act to prevent unnecessary operational changes and allocate $25 billion to expand mail capacity.

Also on Wednesday, local authorities asked the state attorney general for approval to prosecute federal officials for attempting to deprive Texas voters of the right to vote by mail. 

District Attorney Joe Gonzales’s request for a legal opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton came the day after Postmaster General Louis DeJoy bowed to criticism and suspended plans to reform the United States Postal Service ahead of the November elections. 

“This is a unique situation where I think there may be a violation of the Texas election code that comes from a higher authority, from higher officials either in D.C. or some other office outside Bexar County,” Gonzales told the San Antonio Report on Thursday. “So the question is whether or not I have the authority to reach out to those individuals and charge them with the crime if I believe they, in fact, have committed a crime.”

In response to questions surrounding these issues, a spokeswoman for the postal service in San Antonio pointed to the postmaster general’s statement released on Tuesday and stated in an email that she had no other information to share. 

The statement said DeJoy was reversing course on “longstanding operational initiatives” that began before his appointment in June. In addition to restoring retail hours at local post offices and promising not to remove mail processing equipment, DeJoy stated that no facilities would be closed and overtime needed to process mail would be approved. 

The decision to halt proposed changes within the USPS was made “to avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail,” he stated. Starting Oct. 1, the postal service will engage “stand-by resources” to support higher demand prior to the elections. 

For most people voting absentee, Texas counties must receive completed ballots by Election Day. If postmarked by 7 p.m. on Nov. 3, the vote will be counted as long as the ballot arrives by 5 p.m. the following day. 

The USPS recommends that Texas voters request mail-in ballots no later than 15 days from that due date, which would be Oct. 21. But state law allows voters to request the ballots up until a week and a half before Election Day. Thus, some residents may not receive their ballots with enough time to mail them back.

To be eligible to vote by mail in Texas, a person must be older than 65, disabled, planning to be out of the country on election day, or confined to jail. 

In Gonzales’s memo to Paxton, he reminded the attorney general that “secure elections are the cornerstone of a thriving republic,” and asks Paxton to decide whether the district attorney has the authority to prosecute “federal officials who intentionally disenfranchise Texas voters.”

“I have recently become aware of troubling reports of reductions in resources and equipment within the United States Postal Service (USPS) that threaten to disrupt the timely delivery of vote-by-mail applications and ballots,” Gonzales writes. 

“These reductions include the unexplained removal of mail sorting machines and mailboxes; an abrupt departure from the historical practice of processing balloting mail as First Class to ensure prompt delivery; and reductions in staffing and retail hours that have the effect of slowing down mail processing.”

Gonzales said that in his 30 years of practicing law, he had never heard of a district attorney prosecuting a postmaster general for committing a crime. “I think this is something very novel and that’s why I want to be careful,” he said. “I want to be cautious about whether or not I have the ability to do that and that’s why I’m asking for some guidance.”

The district attorney said he began the process of requesting the opinion before DeJoy announced he would halt the cost-cutting measures. But the reports Gonzales had heard of mail sorting machines being removed this week disturbs him and that’s why he’s taking action, he said. 

“There’s no guarantee he’s not going to pick it back up next week,” he said. “We’re months away from the election … and when I hear that sorting machines are being removed and being destroyed, it gives the impression that they’re making it more difficult for the voter to exercise his right to vote.”

Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In May, Paxton said expanding mail-in voting during the pandemic would undermine the security of elections and the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus does not qualify a voter to apply for a mail-in ballot.

But Gonzales said he hopes Paxton will be open-minded and fair in developing his opinion on the matter and give him the answer he’s looking for, “which is that he believes that I do have the ability to look into this matter and potentially prosecute violations.” 

If he does, Gonzales said he will then launch an investigation through an agency such as the Texas Rangers. 

Also on Wednesday, Judge Nelson Wolff weighed in on the issue during the nightly coronavirus briefing. 

“It’s going to be really interesting to see what [Paxton] has to say about this because it’s very clear in the election code that no one has the right to interfere or attempt to subvert or manipulate the election process by illegal means,” Wolff said. “Some of us believe that’s happening, or possibly happening.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.