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How #SaveTheChildren is pulling American moms into QAnon
People march during a “Save the Children” rally outside the Capitol building in St. Paul, Minnesota, on August 22, 2020. | Stephen Maturen/Getty Images The hashtag, its links to conspiracy theories, and its implications for the election, explained. The posts often beg followers to speak out, “get loud,” or wake up. Some feature bold text on a colorful background, matching the aesthetic of many Instagram slideshows this year. Others show photos of beloved children, laughing with their parents. Some are posted by small accounts with few followers, while others have gotten more than 100,000 likes. But all share the same message: Child sex trafficking is out of control in the US and around the world, and no one is paying attention. And they end with the hashtag #SaveTheChildren. The hashtag, which started to gain popularity this summer, seems hard to argue with. Ending human trafficking and protecting children, after all, are uncontroversial goals, barely even political. But in reality, many say, QAnon adherents are trying, via the hashtag,to use the real issue of trafficking to spread their ideology —which includes the bizarre, untrue claim that liberals like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Chrissy Teigen are all part of a vast pedophile ring. While such outlandish theories may not be palatable for many, more general fears about child sex trafficking are easier to get behind. And so social media posts about saving the children have, for some, become a way “to launder QAnon into the mainstream,” as Whitney Phillips, a professor of communication and rhetorical studies and co-author of the book You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape, put it to Vox. The QAnon movement — a growing network of conspiracy theories involving a supposed war between President Trump and a shadowy cabal of powerful liberals sometimes known as the “deep state” — got its start on message boards in 2017. It then gained followers on mainstream social networks like Facebook, and eventually garnered the support offar-rightcongressional candidates, and even Trump himself. And in the past year, the network has amplified and promoted the seemingly innocuous #SaveTheChildren to gain greater reach, and spread fear and suspicion around Democrats as well as support for Trump, as the election approaches. And it might be working. The hashtag has spread far beyond the traditional reaches of QAnon, catching the attention of celebrities including Kelly Dodd of The Real Housewives of Orange County and sparking in-person rallies like one in August in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where marchers held signs with slogans like “Real men don’t buy kids.” View this post on Instagram It’s time to rise up and get loud because children need our help now more than ever. . Human trafficking is a $150 billion a year criminal enterprise. It’s estimated that there are currently 20-40 million people in modern slavery today. Reports indicate that a large number of children exploited by the sex trafficking industry were children in foster care. . It’s estimated that 300,000 American children a year will be lured into the sex trade. The average age a girl enters the sex slave trade is between 12-14 years old. Many of these child victims are runaways who were abused. We need to be their voice! . TAG your friends below and urge them to talk about it, tell others, volunteer or donate. The conversation is uncomfortable, but necessary! You can donate to help at the links below or the link in bio above too or check out my IG stories for a direct swipe up link to donate... . #savethechildren #endsextrafficking #rhoc #getloud #endhumantrafficking #worldhumantraffickingday #endchildtrafficking #betheirvoice #endchildsextrafficking #endhumanslavery #riseup A post shared by Kelly Dodd (@kellyddodd) on Jul 31, 2020 at 11:30am PDT The celebrities and influencers using #SaveTheChildren may not even be aware of the QAnon connection; many have posted uncontroversial content about the problems of child abuse in the US and the world. But their posts have helped drive the popularity of the hashtag, pulling in people — like younger women and those who aren’t particularly politically engaged — who may be far outside QAnon’s orbit. And once those people start searching for #SaveTheChildren content, they may encounter more and more QAnon theories, perhaps eventually becoming believers themselves. But the possible consequences go beyond outlandish beliefs about Hillary Clinton or Chrissy Teigen. By broadening the reach of QAnon, #SaveTheChildren could also broaden distrust of Democrats and the supposed “deep state,” giving Trump an excuse to challenge the results if he should lose the election in November. And even the most innocent uses of the hashtag could compromise the country’s ability to fight actual trafficking. “When we dive into these conspiracy theories, we really miss and misunderstand that we can actually address this problem,” Kate D’Adamo, a consultant with the group Reframe Health and Justice, told Vox. QAnon helped fuel the rise of the #SaveTheChildren hashtag To understand the rise of #SaveTheChildren, it helps to know that QAnon has traded in conspiracy theories about child molestation from the very beginning. It goes back to Pizzagate, a completely false theory that emerged in 2016 that Hillary Clinton and her former campaign chair, John Podesta, operated a child sexual abuse ring in the basement of the DC pizzeria Comet Ping Pong (which does not have a basement). QAnon didn’t gain traction until the following year, when someone eventually nicknamed “Q” started posting ominous, cryptic messages on 4chan about President Trump and a coming reckoning with high-level Democrats, as Vox’s Jane Coaston explains. But one of QAnon’s strengths has always been its ability to absorb a variety of conspiracy theories, and it soon incorporated Pizzagate into its network of beliefs. “Suddenly, central to QAnon was this idea of these pedophiles and Satanists and child sacrifice, and that’s been basically at the core of it ever since,” Phillips said. Today, the QAnon conspiracy landscape includes the idea that “a vast child trafficking ring” around the US and the world is “kidnapping children and torturing them to harvest a drug called adrenochrome,” which they claim has both psychedelic and healing properties, Annie Kelly, a PhD student who studies the far right and is the Britain correspondent for the podcast QAnon Anonymous, told Vox. Adrenochrome is a real chemical, but the QAnon idea that it could be used as a psychedelic drug comes largely from the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and is not supported by scientific evidence. Another key tenet for many QAnon adherents is support for President Trump, who, according to the network’s ideology, is engaged in a battle with the liberal “deep state.” And while QAnon may have started as a fringe group of conspiracy theorists, it’s now been endorsed by 20 current congressional candidates, and by Trump himself, who said in an August interview, “I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.” It’s hard to know exactly how many people buy into QAnon ideology, since the conspiracy theories are so various and shifting. But a recent analysis by Facebook found that together, some of the most popular QAnon groups and pages have more than 3 million members (though there may be some overlap between groups). And 47 percent of respondents in a recent Pew poll said they had at least heard of QAnon, compared with just 23 percent in March. Still, QAnon has encountered problems as it grows, including social media platforms’ efforts to combat misinformation. Amid worldwide lockdowns earlier this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Facebook and other companies began cracking down on QAnon conspiracy theories, Kelly said. Adherents had to find new code words and ways of spreading their message. That’s where #SaveTheChildren (and a related hashtag #SaveOurChildren) came in. Since QAnon is so decentralized, it can be hard to track exactly when and where a certain term or trend emerged. But the hashtags started to spike on Facebook in late July, according to the Tampa Bay Times. They gained popularity in QAnon groups before migrating outward to more mainstream conservative circles, and then going global. The spread may have been aided by the popularity of #Wayfairgate, another conspiracy theory-oriented hashtag making false allegations that the online furniture company Wayfair was involved in child trafficking. Over the summer, Dodd and several other celebrities and influencers with large Instagram followings have posted about #SaveTheChildren. And the hashtag has, to some degree, become a real-world movement, with in-person rallies in cities from Los Angeles to Idaho Falls, Idaho. That movement may be feeding on the anxiety parents are experiencing in a time when families are stuck at home with many schools remote or operating on a hybrid model, leaving parents (disproportionately moms) to balance work, child care, and the ever-present risk of Covid-19. “A lot of moms are freaked out about what might happen with their kids, and their kids not doing so great with the pandemic,” conspiracy theory researcher Mike Rothschild told Rolling Stone. “They’re too worried, too online, and have a lot of time on their hands.” The hashtag could pull new people into the QAnon orbit Some posts on the hashtags — and signs at the rallies — explicitly reference QAnon slogans like “dark to light” or “wwg1wga” (which stands for “where we go one, we go all”).But others are more generic calls to save children from sex trafficking. Many people using the hashtag or attending events may have no idea of the links between #SaveTheChildren and QAnon. That’s one thing that makes #SaveTheChildren so concerning, conspiracy experts say. “Because it sounds so innocuous, and in fact it sounds like a valiant goal to aspire to, people who otherwise wouldn’t be looking for QAnon-related material could be exposed to those materials,” Phillips said. From there, because of the sheer volume of QAnon posts out there, and the way algorithms like those used by Google tend to direct people to more and more related content online, “people could get sucked into a rabbit hole before they even realize that that’s what’s happening,” she said. In particular, #SaveTheChildren could pull more women into the QAnon fold. Women have always been involved with QAnon to some degree, as Kelly wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed — several of the congressional candidates who have expressed support for the ideology are female, for instance. But recently, #SaveTheChildren appears to have attracted a new demographic. At an August rally in London, Kelly noticed “lots more young women,” many of them dressed in a stylish, Instagram-ready aesthetic, she told Vox. Indeed, Instagram influencers have been a big part of the hashtag’s spread, as E.J. Dickson reports at Rolling Stone. For example, model Helen Owen posted a picture of herself and her boyfriend in July with their mouths covered, holding a sign that read “Speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.” Accompanying the picture were statistics about trafficking and the hashtag #SaveTheChildren. View this post on Instagram This topic is not a “trend”. This is not an Instagram challenge. Today is World Day Against Human Trafficking, but tomorrow 10 million children will still endure torture my mind cannot even begin to comprehend. I know this information is unsettling, and it’s easier to scroll past, but PLEASE. SHARE. Let’s flood every corner of the internet with these facts, because once you know this is real, you cannot unknow. Let’s spark a movement of action across the world and stand up for the voiceless. — There are more people enslaved today than any other time in the history of the world, even when slavery was legal. — There are 30 million slaves in the world and 10 million of them are children. — Internationally, every 30 seconds another child is stolen. — 800,000 children go missing WITHIN US BORDERS every year. — Less than 1% of human trafficking victims are ever rescued. — Most child sex slaves are under the age of 12 and the life expectancy of a child sex slave is 7 years. — Human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world generating over 100 BILLION DOLLARS annually worldwide (3x the revenue of the NFL) Follow @ourrescue or text “HELPTHEM” to 51-555 to learn / help. #savethechildren A post shared by Helen Owen (@helenowen) on Jul 30, 2020 at 7:58pm PDT There’s also been significant overlap between the rise of #SaveTheChildren and the growth during lockdown of anti-vaccination communities online, Kelly said — communities that are also often dominated by mothers. Of course, it’s unlikely that everyone who shares an influencer’s post about saving kids is going to become a full-fledged QAnon devotee. But in addition to younger women, #SaveTheChildren seems to be pulling in people who weren’t previously active in politics. At the London rally, “lots and lots of people said to me, this is the first protest I’ve ever been to,” Kelly said. In the US, people who go to #SaveTheChildren rallies aren’t necessarily going to vote for Trump. But a broadening reach for QAnon could benefit him. “You can see that Trump is leaning more and more explicitly on these narratives” in recent weeks, Phillips said. He’s started to use the phrase “deep state” specifically, tweeting that “the deep state, or whoever, over at the FDA is making it very difficult for drug companies to get people in order to test the vaccines and therapeutics” for Covid-19. And during the Republican National Convention, he and his surrogates referenced his supposed work fighting human trafficking, with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes calling him a “warrior” against the practice. Intentionally or not, such comments may have served as a dog whistle to QAnon and #SaveTheChildren adherents. Trump’s embrace of a QAnon narrative “lays the groundwork for contesting the election,” Phillips said — if he loses, “he’s going to blame the deep state.” And among his supporters, “that’s going to activate a reluctance or refusal to accept the outcome of the election.” So while calls to #SaveTheChildren may seem apolitical, they could actually help Trump construct a rationale — however irrational — to stay in power past November and incite more division. It could hamper real efforts to fight trafficking These calls could also hurt real-life efforts to help children — and adults — escape trafficking situations. Obviously, conspiracy theories like Pizzagate paint a false picture of trafficking in America — Hillary Clinton is not using a DC pizza restaurant to traffic kids. But even more innocuous #SaveTheChildren posts can contain misinformation, like the idea that “300,000 American children are lured into the commercial sex trade every year,” that there are more missing children in the US than there have been deaths from Covid-19 worldwide, or that wearing a mask as a coronavirus precaution makes children more vulnerable to trafficking. All these claims are false. There is actually no reliable data on how many people are trafficked in the US each year, D’Adamo, the Reframe Health and Justice consultant, said. And although the narrative of children being trafficked into sexual abuse gets the most attention, trafficking often takes the form of forced labor or wage theft. At the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, a Los Angeles-based organization, for example, the most common industry for reports of trafficking is agriculture, followed by domestic work, D’Adamo said. Sex work comes in third. And contrary to the idea of a shadowy cabal plucking children from their families — or targeting children who are wearing masks — those at the greatest risk of being trafficked are “people who are already vulnerable, who are already experiencing different forms of social violence or state violence,” D’Adamo said. That can include people who are homeless or in unstable housing, youth in foster care, and LGBTQ+ youth who have been kicked out of their homes or otherwise neglected or abused by family. It can also include migrant young people who may be “dependent on someone acting as a caregiver” and who “don’t have a lot of other resources to go to,” she explained. “We know exactly who gets exploited; it is not rich kids in the suburbs,” she said. And spreading misinformation about trafficking can hamper real efforts to prevent it. “We treat it as this irrational stranger danger, there’s someone lurking around every corner, when that’s just not the case, and it means that we no longer pay attention to the very obvious things that lead to trafficking,” D’Adamo said. Most of those factors — from threats to the safety of LGBTQ+ youth to anti-immigrant policies that threaten refugees and migrants — have grown worse, not better, under the Trump administration, despite claims that the president has been “a warrior against human trafficking.” “Every single population that was vulnerable to trafficking has gotten worse over the last four years,” D’Adamo said. In fact, the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, a coalition of anti-trafficking groups with a variety of ideologies, issued a statement in June raising a host of concerns about the US government’s approach, from increased barriers to obtaining visas for survivors to complicity by the Department of Homeland Security in labor trafficking inside immigration detention facilities. The Trump administration disputes this view. “Immediately upon taking office, President Trump made combating the scourge of human trafficking one of his Administration’s top priorities,” assistant White House press secretary Karoline Leavitt told Vox in an email. “Over the last four years, the Trump Administration has provided unprecedented federal support to help human trafficking survivors and prosecute perpetrators of this heinous crime.” But what people vulnerable to trafficking need right now — especially in a pandemic that has driven many further into poverty — is economic stability, D’Adamo said. Access to housing is crucial, as are labor protections, unemployment insurance, and other programs to make sure people’s needs are taken care of. And none of that will happen if too many Americans buy into the narratives pushed by #SaveTheChildren and QAnon, D’Adamo said. “If we completely misunderstand how trafficking works, then we’re never actually going to address what could prevent it.” Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. 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Does Joe Biden Have a Latino-Voter Problem?
Joe Biden leads Donald Trump by a solid margin—about 7 percentage points nationally, as of this writing. He’s built his advantage by improving on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 success with suburban voters, seniors, and college-educated white Americans.But when it comes to Latinos, Biden may have a problem. Although he’s dramatically outpacing Trump among Latinos overall, he’s falling behind Clinton’s pace, including in the key state of Florida. An analysis by Harry Enten at CNN found that Biden’s average lead among Latinos is 9 points lower than Clinton’s around this time four years ago. If Biden can’t close the deal with this crucial constituency, it could spell trouble for him across the country.That Trump’s standing among the Latino community could have improved at all over the past few years might strike many people as utterly shocking. Since he descended that escalator in 2015, Trump has disparaged immigrants as “rapists,” made up horror stories about northbound caravans set on invading the country, locked up immigrant children in despicable conditions, lashed out at Puerto Rico after a hurricane demolished the island, and empowered ICE to do a variety of ghastly things, including separating families and reportedly assaulting detainees in camera blindspots. What’s more, his administration bungled the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed Latinos at a disproportionate rate.[Kristian Ramos: Latino support for Trump is real]Still, a variety of polls show Trump narrowing the Democrats’ historic advantage among Latino voters and possibly pulling even with Biden in Florida. What’s going on?If you ask a pollster, a demographic researcher, or a Latino advocate to explain Biden’s Latino-voter problem—and I’ve asked several—they’ll start with the caveats.Many polls that supposedly show Biden’s weakness have small sample sizes for specific ethnic groups that leave huge margins of error. Latinos have historically been late deciders in elections, which might deflate Biden’s apparent support. Some surveys, such as the Quinnipiac University Poll, are conducted in English only and fail to measure the Spanish-speakers who tend to be left-leaning. And the pandemic has delayed some face-to-face Democratic voter outreach, which means that many Latino voters are hearing from the Biden campaign later than they normally would.Everybody I spoke with agreed that Biden has work to do to bring late-deciding Latinos to the ballot box (or to the mailbox). “I would say that any lack of enthusiasm for Biden is due both to early investment from the Trump campaign to raise its standing among Latinos and to a lack of investment in Latinos from the Biden campaign,” Sindy Benavides, the chief executive officer of the League of United Latin American Citizens, told me.[Read: The neglect of Latino voters]Biden’s issues go back to the Democratic primary, where Bernie Sanders dominated the Latino vote in western states. In California, Sanders won 71 percent of Latinos under the age of 30, according to exit polls. Benavides said Biden should take a page from Bernie Sanders’s successful efforts to mobilize young Latinos early in the Democratic primary. “Bernie was successful among young Latinos because the structure and strategy of the campaign included the Latino community,” she said. “For a lot of Latinos who are focused on surviving this pandemic, who can’t see beyond the next week, or beyond the next day, Biden needs to speak to their urgent concerns.” (A representative from the Biden campaign emphasized that, although the pandemic has made it harder to hold large events with Latino voters, the campaign is planning more direct Latino outreach in the closing weeks to shore up support in Florida and across the country.)“There is a lot of disinformation that is directly targeting the Latino community, including misleading messages about voting by mail and threats that ICE will be lurking at various polling stations,” Benavides said. Biden’s most important challenge in the final weeks is to replace that disinformation with his own story—and a plan for November. Stephanie Valencia, the co-founder of Equis Research, told Politico that Biden remains an unknown among many Latinos, whose support for Biden increases when they learn more about his platform.But Biden can’t resolve his problems simply with get-out-the-vote efforts and PSA campaigns. The most sophisticated Latino pollsters have identified several trouble spots.In Florida, the historically conservative Cuban American cohort has lurched toward Trump in the past few years. After roughly splitting their votes between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in 2012, Florida’s Cuban Americans are breaking for Trump by about 20 points, according to a recent poll by Equis. (Biden leads non-Cuban Latinos in the state by about 30 points, according to the same poll.) “Trump is clearly doing even better among Cuban Americans than some previous Republicans,” Mark Lopez, the director of Hispanic research at Pew Research Center, told me. “Biden’s weakness in Florida has something to do with the president’s anti-socialist rhetoric” that equates left-wing Democrats with the Castro regime, which Cuban Americans moved north to escape.Even more concerning for Democrats is that young Latino men born in the United States seem to be inching toward Trump, intrigued perhaps by the president’s business persona. No single group has posted a larger statistical bump for Trump than Latino men under the age of 50, according to Equis.Unlike the Cuban American phenomenon, which is confined almost entirely to Florida, this appears to be a national phenomenon. In Arizona, for example, only half of Latino men under 50 say they will vote for Biden, far fewer than the nearly 70 percent of young Latina women. Among older Latinos in Arizona, there is practically no difference between male and female preferences, with Biden’s edge among women at just 3 percent.[Julio Ricardo Varela: What Biden can learn from Sanders about the young Latino vote]The gender gap among young Latino voters is “one of the most significant new developments in the Latino vote today,” Lopez said. It reflects a broader gender gap in the U.S. electorate. As late as the 1970s, there was scarcely any difference between male and female voters. But in the past four decades, women have edged toward the Democratic Party, while men moved into the GOP. In 2016, Clinton won the popular vote by several million ballots with just 41 percent of male support. As net immigration from Mexico and Central America continues to decline, third- and fourth-generation Latino men (i.e., whose grandparents or great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S.) seem to be less likely to consider themselves “Latino” or “Hispanic” and more likely to vote like white men, the GOP’s demographic sweet spot.There is no such thing as a singular Latino electorate. There are only Latino electorates, which vary by state, gender, generation, economic status, and their family’s nation of origin. The challenge for Biden and future Democrats is to find a message that cuts across identities. The right approach in this election is to focus on the intersection of health and economics—and, in particular, on work. Today, Latinos are more likely than the average American to work in low-wage service jobs that expose them to health risks in a pandemic. But this sort of deprivation is not unique to any ethnic group; it is endemic to the service economy and the working class, and its solutions will require working-class policies, such as universal health care and stronger labor protections. To counter Trump’s advantage among Cuban Americans and men, and to maximize turnout among Latino voters predisposed to vote Democratic, Biden needs to do more than unfurl his multi-page résumé. He needs to get specific with Latino voters on pocketbook issues and explain how their lives would improve with him in the White House. That is, he needs to explain how they, too, would win with a Biden victory.
The Election’s Biggest Threat Is No Longer the Postal Service
President Donald Trump stood on a North Carolina tarmac earlier this month, Air Force One idling behind him, and urged his supporters to commit a crime. He said they should cast the ballots they received in the mail—just as he has done many times in the past—and then they should go to their polling place on Election Day and test the system by trying to vote again. “Let them send it in, and let them go vote,” Trump said. “If their system’s as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote.”Officials in North Carolina were aghast. The executive director of the state’s board of elections, Karen Brinson Bell, issued a statement the next day explicitly warning North Carolinians not to follow the president’s advice. “It is illegal to vote twice in an election,” she said. “Attempting to vote twice in an election or soliciting someone to do so also is a violation of North Carolina law.”Neither the location nor the timing of Trump’s remarks appeared to be a coincidence. North Carolina—the first state in the nation to mail out absentee ballots on a large scale—is where the general election unofficially begins. A few days after the president appeared there, counties across the state started sending more than 700,000 ballots that voters initially requested by mail. That volume is more than 15 times the number of requests from the same time four years ago and represents about 15 percent of the total votes cast in North Carolina in 2016—a reflection of the record interest in voting by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic.This first mass mailing is providing the United States Postal Service with something of a test run, and despite the president’s mischief, North Carolina has recorded few election hiccups in the early going.“It seems like things have been rolling out fairly well,” J. Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at North Carolina’s Catawba College who closely tracks the state’s elections, told me. More than 80,000 mail ballots have already been returned and accepted in North Carolina, and thousands pour into election offices every day.Gerry Cohen, a member of the Wake County elections board, told me he received his ballot the day after the county started mailing them. “I was actually surprised,” he said. “That was much better service than I expected from the last couple of years from the U.S. Postal Service.”That’s a rare endorsement for one of the nation’s most beleaguered agencies at the moment. The 2020 election faces a cluster of overlapping challenges that could complicate voting over the next two months—among them a deadly pandemic, litigation that’s delaying the mailing of ballots, and a president who is spreading disinformation about voting. The Postal Service, besieged by complaints about its new leader and changes to its operations, had been at the top of the list of concerns just a few weeks ago. Now, however, the mail might be the least of the election’s troubles.Leaders of two major postal unions are considerably more confident about USPS’s ability—and commitment—to help carry out the election than they were a month ago, when changes to mail delivery slowed service and prompted Democrats to accuse the newly installed postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, of plotting to sabotage the vote at the behest of President Trump. Following a bipartisan outcry, DeJoy suspended many of the changes he had implemented or planned until after the election. More important, union officials told me, he reaffirmed the Postal Service’s long-standing policy of prioritizing and expediting election mail, and he brought union leaders onto a task force charged with ensuring the smooth running of an election that will feature a record flood of mail ballots. In essence, union officials said, the uproar worked to kick USPS into gear—at least until November.“We will be fine,” Jim Sauber, the chief of staff of the National Association of Letter Carriers and a member of the expanded Postal Service election task force, told me in an interview. “At the moment, I’m feeling pretty good.” Over the summer, a flurry of reports from letter carriers and postal workers first alerted the public to unannounced changes in operations that had caused mail to pile up and trucks to go out nearly empty in some areas. There’s been “a dramatic drop” in those reports from the field, Sauber said, in the weeks since DeJoy announced a pullback on the overhaul he ordered shortly after taking office in June.Of particular importance was DeJoy’s commitment to treat all ballots as first-class mail even if they’re purchased at less-expensive bulk rates, along with his vow to beef up staffing around election time to meet the expected surge of ballots, as the Postal Service has done in years past.“I’m optimistic that the Postal Service is up to the task,” Mark Dimondstein, the president of the American Postal Workers Union, told me. “There’s more commitments and there’s more cooperation, and those are both very important things for making sure this works well.”[Read: What really scares voting experts about the Postal Service]From the beginning, the Postal Service has insisted that it has both the capacity and the funding to handle a surge in mail ballots. The doubts have instead centered around DeJoy, a GOP donor who won the postmaster general’s job only after Trump was able to fill open seats on the USPS board of governors, which appointed DeJoy. In appearances before Congress last month, he defended the operational changes he ordered in the name of efficiency, even as he promised the Postal Service’s full support in facilitating mail-in voting. The postal unions remained concerned about the long-term impact of those changes, and in interviews over the past several days, I could detect a hint of frustration that the narrow, but understandable, focus on the election was obscuring their deeper worry about the direction of USPS under DeJoy’s leadership.The APWU, for example, believes the Trump administration is on a mission to degrade public support for the Postal Service so it can put the agency up for sale. The public outcry over DeJoy’s overhaul has made that harder, but once the election is over, union leaders wonder, will people simply move on?“We’re pleased there’s been some pullback on these policies between now and the election,” Dimondstein told me, “but the post office is not just about mail ballots, as important as they are. And it’s not just about now until November, as important as that is.”I asked Dimondstein whether he trusted DeJoy. “Well, that’s kind of a loaded question,” he replied with a nervous laugh. “I’ve always said, and I’m going to continue to say, we have deep concerns about how he got there and what he represents and, obviously, what he’s doing,” Dimondstein told me. “He has said a lot of the right things, but how we judge him as postmaster general is by his deeds.” He recalled the wise words of an old friend who once told him, “Watch the feet.”Not everything has gone smoothly for the Postal Service so far. Colorado is suing the agency over a postcard it sent to more than 160 million American voters encouraging them to request ballots from their state at least 15 days before the election. Because Colorado is one of several states that votes entirely by mail, it sends every registered voter a ballot automatically—they don’t need to request one. Its secretary of state, Jena Griswold, said the USPS mailer would cause confusion among Colorado voters, “undermine confidence in the election” and suppress votes. She said that when she urged the Postal Service not to send the postcard to voters in Colorado, it refused.A federal judge initially ruled in Colorado’s favor and issued an injunction against the Postal Service, although most of the postcards had already gone out. A person familiar with USPS operations told me the postcard mistake was a case of “complete incompetence.” Yet the incident appears to be an example of well-intentioned imprecision rather than malicious chicanery; like election officials and campaigns in both parties, the Postal Service is trying to encourage voters to plan ahead, particularly if they are voting by mail for the first time. “Our mailer was intended to be general, all-purpose guidance on the use of the mail, and not guidance on state rules,” USPS spokesperson Martha Johnson told me.Many states will begin mailing out ballots to millions more voters over the next week, including in the battlegrounds of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Georgia. The biggest worries, however, are about delays and snafus that have little to do with the mail itself. In Pennsylvania, counties could not begin sending out ballots as early as state law allowed because the state supreme court had yet to rule on a lawsuit over whether the Green Party’s presidential ticket will appear on the ballot. The court issued its ruling against the Green Party on Thursday, clearing the way for ballots to go out. (“We really don’t consider ourselves to be behind at this point,” Wanda Murren, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of State, told me before the ruling. “This is not big alarm bells going off.”) In Ohio, officials are still fighting over how many drop boxes will be deployed to make it easier for voters to submit their completed ballots. Wisconsin narrowly avoided a delay in the mailing of more than 1 million ballots after its supreme court ruled against adding the Green Party to the ballot, which would have forced counties to reprint ballots—a process that would have taken multiple weeks.Another cause for concern is the millions of voters who will be participating by mail for the first time. In a few counties in North Carolina, as many as 10 percent of ballots have been rejected so far, in most cases because the voter did not have the signature of a witness as required by law. The rate of rejected ballots is higher for Black voters, which Bitzer and Cohen each said might be explained by the fact that Black voters are less likely to have voted by mail before. Election officials will follow up with voters whose ballots are rejected to help them correct the ballots so they can be counted, which is one reason why officials have been encouraging voters to return their ballots as early as possible.Voters can return their ballots by mail or in person, and lines have already been forming at election offices in the state more than seven weeks ahead of Election Day.(North Carolina does not allow drop boxes; two years ago, Republican operatives were caught illegally collecting absentee ballots in a voter-fraud scheme that led to the invalidation of a congressional election.) Gerry Cohen’s wife didn’t get her ballot for several days, a delay he attributed to the county sending out the initial ballots in waves, as opposed to all at once. Cohen mailed his ballot back and dropped off his wife’s in person. North Carolina has a ballot-tracking service that voters can sign up for, and at 6 a.m. the day after Cohen returned his wife’s completed ballot, she received both a recorded phone call and an email informing her that it had been accepted. “We could have chosen a text, too,” Cohen told me, “but we figured two forms were enough.”When I asked Cohen what worried him most about the election, his reply wasn’t the post office. Instead, he pointed toward the president: “Misinformation and disinformation,” he told me.A few days after we spoke, Trump seized on a local news report that officials in one North Carolina county had accidentally mailed parts of two ballots to a few hundred voters. “RIGGED ELECTION in waiting!” the president tweeted. The director of the Mecklenburg County board of elections called the snafu “more of an embarrassment than an issue” and noted that the state system would prevent someone from actually casting multiple ballots.[Read: The question at the heart of the Postal Service crisis]None of those issues fall under the purview of the Postal Service, which has scrambled in recent weeks to offer reassurance about its own role in the election. For now, DeJoy appears to have succeeded at least in quelling fears that his changes that slowed down the mail were implemented with the election in mind, as some Democrats charged. “I don’t have any real concerns that there’s a cabal out to undermine the election,” Sauber told me. He pointed to a simpler explanation, in which an inexperienced new boss came in and ordered an overhaul before he really understood the operation he was running. “He’s a logistics expert,” Sauber explained. “He thinks this is his sweet spot, his knowledge area, and he wanted to make a big splash and set the tone. What happened is a lot of managers ran wild trying to impress the new boss.”Sauber told me he was more worried about the resurgence of the pandemic this fall, which could impact service if an outbreak forced postal workers or letter carriers off the job in a crucial region in the weeks before the election. “That’s a more likely danger than any kind of political sabotage,” he said.In Iowa, a retail clerk from Waterloo named Kimberly Karol was one of the postal workers who sounded the alarm about mail piling up and the removal of sorting equipment over the summer. Karol, the president of the Iowa affiliate of the postal workers union, told me that not much had improved in the weeks since—with one notable exception. “As far as the election goes, I think it’ll go smoothly,” she told me. Karol said managers had begun to use overtime again to compensate for chronic staffing shortages, and she described how postal managers would coordinate with election officials to make sure ballots were the first mail delivered in the morning. “It’s going to be the election mail that’s going to be the highest priority. So I don’t see any issue with election mail,” Karol said. “My concern is for mail in general after that point.”