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Seven of eight mail collection boxes removed in Gallatin County were in precincts that voted for Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in Montana’s 2018 Senate election at a higher percentage than the rest of the county.

The United States Postal Service removed at least 14 mailboxes throughout the state before last week. Seven of the mailboxes were in Bozeman and one was in Manhattan, according to a list of locations released by Tester’s office.

In Bozeman, boxes at 1 West Main Street, 301 West Main Street and 220 West Lamme Street were removed. Those three are in precinct 66B, where Tester earned 74% of the vote in 2018.

Boxes at Montana State University’s Culbertson Hall and 903 West College Street were removed in precinct 63B, which voted 73% Democrat.

At 424 East Main St. (precinct 61C), and 1001 North 17th Ave. (precinct 65A), mailboxes were removed. Those two precincts voted 81% and 76% for Tester, respectively.

“At the very least, it looks suspicious and fishy and makes me want to say hey, I want to do a deeper analysis,” said David Parker, chair of Montana State’s political science department.

The service has since paused removals and will return the boxes, according to Tester’s office. They will remain in place until after the November election.

The news comes as Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has faced national criticism for changes to the postal service, including the removal of mail collection boxes nationwide.

During a Senate committee hearing Friday, DeJoy didn’t share the information he used to decide where and why mailboxes were removed. He did say the Postal Service is “fully capable” of delivering election mail on time. DeJoy, a major Republican donor, was picked to head the USPS in May.

“For rural America, dependable mail delivery isn’t just another election year issue,” Tester said in a press release, “and it’s unacceptable that DeJoy is hell-bent on ensuring that Montanans — who rely on USPS for everything from receiving prescription medication to paying their bills — will be facing challenges again starting Nov. 4.”

In 2018, Tester won 59% of the vote in Gallatin County. The mailbox in Manhattan that was removed was in precinct 69C, where Tester won 36% of the vote. It was the only Gallatin County box on the list that was in a precinct Tester didn’t win.

Parker reviewed the precincts where the other six mailboxes in Montana were removed and found all resided in precincts that voted for Tester in 2018 at a higher rate than the rest of that county.

Though Parker wants to find more data to compare to throughout the state and country, he said it stood out to him that mailboxes were removed from some of the most Democratic precincts in Montana.

He said he wants “to see if there’s partisan monkey business going on,” and that it could be “potentially a big deal.”

The Gallatin County Commission voted Tuesday to hold the November election by mail because of the pandemic. Earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock announced individual counties could decide to do that, similar to how the mail-ballot primary election worked.

Republican Sen. Steve Daines, Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte, Bullock and Tester have sent letters to DeJoy requesting an explanation for why the mailboxes were removed. All four said the Postal Service is pivotal in delivering essential items to Montanans.

Tester and Daines cosponsored a bill in early July that would give the USPS $25 billion to cover lost money due to the coronavirus pandemic.

President Donald Trump has opposed additional funding for the USPS and made false claims of mail-in voting leading to widespread fraud.

USPS spokesperson Floyd Wagoner declined to comment on why the mailboxes were removed, citing DeJoy’s Senate hearing.

In a statement last week, Wagoner wrote, “This is a normal operational procedure to make sure the majority of our boxes are in high traffic areas and convenient for customers.”

A nationwide “Save the Post Office Saturday” movement is planned for this weekend with people showing up at post offices at 11 a.m. Saturday to voice displeasure with DeJoy.

Following DeJoy’s hearing Friday, Tester continued criticizing the postmaster general.

“DeJoy needs to provide Montanans with answers about what data he’s basing his decisions on,” Tester said, “and then come up with a plan to do more than cut the legs out from under folks in rural communities.”

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Paul Schwedelson can be reached at pschwedelson@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.

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