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Sierra blizzard provides ammo for critics of US Postal Service plan to downsize mail hub in Nevada

RENO, Nev. (AP) — A U.S. Postal Service plan to downsize a regional mail hub in Reno and move package and letter processing to Sacramento, California, already had Nevadans worried Monday about service delays and potential impacts on elections in the key swing state where most voters now cast their ballots by mail.

The blizzard that dumped up to 10 feet (3 meters) of snow on the top of the Sierra, shutting down Interstate 80 and all mountain highways for three days, provided a glimpse of the potential havoc the move could wreak on elections, Nevada Secretary of State Francisco Aguilar said Monday.

The Democrat who serves as the state's chief election officer and other critics said that under the USPS plan it may not be possible for ballots placed in the mail in central and northern Nevada on Election Day to be postmarked the same day. Aguilar said it “has the potential to disenfranchise thousands of Nevada voters and would unquestionably impact the results of Nevada’s elections."

“We’ve all seen the footage of semi-trucks caught in the snow ... the kinds of trucks that would be used to ship mail from Reno to Sacramento under the USPS’s recent proposal," Aguilar said in a statement. “I can’t fathom how I would explain to my constituents that their mail ballots, or other important mail which could include anything from legal documents to medication, was trapped in the snow in the mountains due to a rushed process and lack of foresight."

I-80 between Reno and Sacramento reopened Monday to all traffic — with chains still mandatory on most vehicles — for the first time since the storm packing heavy snow and winds gusting well in excess of 100 mph (160 kph) blew into the Sierra on Friday.

Aguilar and others earlier complained about a lack of transparency in what Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has cast as a money-saving move. They said they're concerned that mail service can be snarled traffic delays even in the best of weather by the hourslong roundtrip drive over the Sierra Nevada.

“The USPS standard for local Reno mail received and delivered is two days, a standard which USPS has already struggled to meet,” Nevada Democratic U.S. Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei said in a Wednesday letter to DeJoy. “Sending Nevadans’ mail to California does not seem like a promising way of improving this deficiency.”

The letter accused the Postal Service of failing to show how it shaped its plan or “provide any analysis on local impacts of moving mail processing” from Reno to Sacramento. It sought DeJoy's response by March 15.

Rosen on Friday called reliable on-time mail delivery of medication and Social Security checks crucial for seniors, military veterans and families.

Amodei represents northern Nevada, where mail from a vast eight-county area and the state capital, Carson City, is currently processed and distributed at a Reno facility that would be downsized to a local processing center under a 10-year, $40 billion Postal Service modernization plan to establish 60 regional processing and distribution centers across the U.S.

DeJoy was appointed to his position in May 2020 under Republican President Donald Trump. He faced criticism about sweeping Postal Service policy changes ahead of the November 2020 election and has defended his agency's ability to deliver mail-in ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Postal Service spokesman Rod Spurgeon confirmed by email Friday that the agency received the Nevada Congress members' letter and said a response would go directly to them.

"The business case supports transferring some mail processing operations” to Sacramento, the Postal Service said in a Feb. 6 document outlining the Reno office downsizing, which it projected could save up to $4.2 million per year. A period for public comment ended Wednesday. Spurgeon added Friday that findings were preliminary and declined to specify other states where similar plans are being made.

In Wyoming, complaints have arisen among critics who say shifting Postal Service processing from Cheyenne to Denver and from Casper to Billings, Montana, would leave Wyoming without a mail processing facility.

Spurgeon said letters and packages currently processed in Reno would go to Sacramento and be returned to Reno for delivery within the standard two days. The current facility in Reno serves a sprawling Postal Service area home to 22% of Nevada's population. Rural areas vote solidly Republican, while Washoe County and Reno narrowly favored Democratic President Joe Biden in 2020. Other regional postal hubs in Nevada are in Elko and the Las Vegas area.

Washoe County commissioners voted last week to oppose the Post Office downsizing, the Reno Gazette Journal reported, and the interim head of the county elections department told the newspaper she would discourage voters from mailing ballots if the plan becomes final.

“I wouldn’t even put it in the mail," interim county Registrar Cari-Ann Burgess said. "I would drop it off at one of our vote centers.”

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This story has been updated to correct that Louis DeJoy was appointed Postmaster General in May 2020 under Republican President Donald Trump, not by Trump.

The Associated Press