PHOENIX — Arizona’s top election official wants a state investigation into whether President Trump and others in his administration are conspiring to violate a state law making it a crime to knowingly delay the delivery of a ballot.
Secretary of State Katie Hobbs pointed out that Louis DeJoy, a donor to the Trump campaign and the president’s appointed postmaster general, has announced what he called changes to the “organizational structure’’ of the financially struggling Postal Service. In a press release, the agency said it will focus “on what the Postal Service does best: collect, process, move and deliver mail and packages.’’
That includes eliminating overtime, meaning some items at the post office would be left for the following day. There also would be hiring freezes.
Hobbs cited reports that mail-sorting machines were being deactivated or removed entirely.
“The effect of these changes, taken individually or together, is an extended transit period for mail,’’ she wrote in a formal complaint to Attorney General Mark Brnovich. He is involved because the legislature, at his request, gave him $530,000 a year in 2019 to create a special Elections Integrity Unit to investigate allegations of fraud.
Hobbs, in her complaint, said the issue is more complex than simply budget problems, suggesting that the Trump administration is attempting to “sabotage’’ the postal service with the goal of preventing Arizonans from exercising their rights.
First, she said, is the timing, coming right before a major election. And Hobbs noted the broad interest in voting by mail, saying about 85 percent of the ballots cast in the primary earlier this month came in that way.
On top of that are some very public comments by the president taking a swat at voting by mail and arguing that it could lead to inaccurate and fraudulent results.
Hobbs pointed out that the president was asked about efforts by some in Congress to provide $25 billion in emergency funding for the Postal Service.
“They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all these millions and millions of ballots,’’ he told Fox News. “If they don’t get those items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.’’
Hobbs, a Democrat, said that shows Trump is acting intentionally.
“There’s no need to read between the lines here,’’ she told Brnovich who, like Trump, is a Republican. “The president explicitly admitted to an intentional effort to interfere with the USPS’ ability to deliver ballots by mail.’’
It’s not clear that Trump’s comments were an attack on current practices or more in response to a bid by some congressional Democrats to enact federal legislation to expand and fund vote-by-mail across the nation and expand other early voting options. The response by the president and many Republicans has been to question the integrity and security of early voting.
But Hobbs said the president’s comments and the refusal to fund the postal service have to be seen in context. She said this isn’t just any normal election.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic which the president has refused to act on in a serious manner,’’ Hobbs said. And she said the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control have recommended voting by mail as the safest way of casting a ballot given the COVID-19 outbreak.
“He is directly trying to undermine that,’’ Hobbs said. “He is trying to disenfranchise voters and make it harder for them to participate when it’s the safest way for them to vote right now.’’
All this isn’t occurring in a vacuum.
Earlier this week, Thomas Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president of the Postal Service, warned officials in Arizona and other states that delivery delays could mean that many ballots may not get delivered on time to be counted.
Hobbs said that already has forced her office to modify what had been its longstanding advice to voters to get their ballots in the mail six days ahead of Election Day. Arizona law says that any ballot not received by 7 p.m. on Election Day is not counted.
Her letter to Brnovich refers to a law that makes it a Class 3 misdemeanor to knowingly delay delivery of a ballot. That subjects the offender to a fine of $500 and up to 30 days in county jail.
Hobbs said this is about more than the criminal code.
“Arizona’s Constitution states that ‘all elections shall be free and equal, and no power, civil or military, shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage,’ ‘’ she wrote. “In a state where the vast majority of voters choose to do so by mail, attempts to sabotage the USPS just months before an election are most certainly attempts to interfere with ‘the free exercise of the right of suffrage.’ ‘’
The attorney general, for his part, was noncommittal — and a bit dismissive.
“We review every complaint, regardless of merit,’’ he said in a prepared statement.
And Brnovich took his own slap at Hobbs, saying he “will continue to protect the integrity of our elections, even when other state officials won’t.’’
That refers to the fact that Hobbs has sided with some organizations who have challenged changes in election laws approved by the Republican-controlled legislature.
Most recently, Hobbs asked the U.S. Supreme Court to leave intact a federal appellate court ruling voiding Arizona’s ban on “ballot harvesting.’’ She filed her own legal briefs saying the judges got it right when they concluded that lawmakers enacted the ban in 2016 at least in part to discourage minority voting.
At the same time, however, Brnovich is asking the justices to overturn the appellate ruling. He said the statute, which limits who can take someone else’s ballot to the polling place, is designed to prevent fraud and intimidation of voters by political operatives who were collecting these ballots.