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Explainer

What the Postal Service Crisis Means for the November Election

More people voting by mail means that the Postal Service will be more important than ever this year.

Published: August 19, 2020

With unpre­ced­en­ted numbers of Amer­ic­ans expec­ted to use mail ballots this year, the U.S. Postal Service will be an essen­tial part of ensur­ing that the elec­tion is safe and fair. But the agency is facing a fund­ing crisis, staff­ing over­hauls, and severe cost-cutting meas­ures.

There have been delays, inter­rup­tions in services, and reports of mail­boxes being removed and bulk mail sort­ing machines being deac­tiv­ated. With the Covid-19 pandemic surging in many parts of the coun­try and a high-stakes elec­tion coming up, there are grow­ing concerns about whether the Postal Service’s abil­ity to deliver mail ballots on time is being sabot­aged by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. The post­mas­ter general has said he will delay some of the changes under­way, but uncer­tain­ties remain.

How does the USPS work?

The U.S. Postal Service is an inde­pend­ent govern­ment agency rooted in the prin­ciple that every person in the coun­try “has the right to equal access to secure, effi­cient, and afford­able mail service.” The agency employs nearly half a million career employ­ees and has a very diverse work­force — 39 percent of its employ­ees are people of color, includ­ing 21 percent who are Black. The agency also employs nearly 100,000 milit­ary members and veter­ans.

Amer­ic­ans rely on the Postal Service for deliv­ery of bills and essen­tial docu­ments, medic­a­tions, and voting ballots. Such services are partic­u­larly import­ant for small busi­nesses, as well as people in rural areas, senior citizens, indi­gen­ous people, and those with disab­il­it­ies, as they may not be able to access or afford private ship­ping compan­ies.

The Postal Service does not get taxpayer money, but relies on reven­ues from sales of post­age, products, and services. As a public util­ity, it is charged with provid­ing regu­lar services in every area, no matter how far-flung or costly. It consist­ently ranks among the most favor­able of govern­ment agen­cies, with 91 percent of Amer­ic­ans report­ing a posit­ive opin­ion.

Why is the USPS short of funds?

The USPS is facing a fund­ing crisis because of years of declines in use of postal services, which has been compoun­ded by an addi­tional drop in usage because of Covid-19, as well as the long­stand­ing impact of federal legis­la­tion.

A 2006 law, the Postal Account­ab­il­ity and Enhance­ment Act, was espe­cially harm­ful. It required the agency to fund all retire­ment and health bene­fits in advance instead of using a pay-as-you-go system, doub­ling its annual net losses to $8.8 billion last year. No other federal agency is subject to such a mandate. Without it, the Postal Service would have been prof­it­able for the last six years.

Pres­id­ent Trump has been a frequent critic of the USPS, call­ing for service cuts and refus­ing to bail out the agency during the pandemic, even as its work­ers risk expos­ure to the coronavirus while serving the public. He acknow­ledged that he opposes fund­ing because he wants to make it harder for people to vote by mail — even though he reques­ted a mail-in ballot for himself as recently as August to vote in Flor­id­a’s primary.

What are the recent devel­op­ments with the USPS?

Concerns about target­ing the USPS have ampli­fied since June, when Louis DeJoy, an ally of Pres­id­ent Trump and a major Repub­lican donor, took over as post­mas­ter general. DeJoy has never worked in a post office before and has signi­fic­ant finan­cial hold­ings in a company that the Postal Service contracts with for help during busy peri­ods. He has restruc­tured the organ­iz­a­tion and insti­tuted cost-cutting meas­ures, reas­sign­ing or displa­cing 23 postal exec­ut­ives in August.

There are reports of the USPS drastic­ally cutting over­time hours, instruct­ing postal work­ers to leave mail behind if it leads to delays, and insti­tut­ing a hiring freeze. Busi­nesses and resid­ents have faced delays and inter­rup­tions from an agency with a long­stand­ing record of deliv­er­ing on time.

With the elec­tion just months away, it has been repor­ted the USPS is remov­ing mail­boxes, deac­tiv­at­ing mail sort­ing machines, and slash­ing its open­ing hours by more than a half in some loca­tions, includ­ing during the busiest times of the day.

And in a depar­ture from a long­stand­ing informal prac­tice of postal work­ers treat­ing elec­tion-related mail as first class even when it is sent using a cheaper bulk mail rate, the agency is now warn­ing states that they should pay the higher rate to ensure they are clas­si­fied as first class mail and delivered more quickly. This could present a major finan­cial chal­lenge for many strug­gling govern­ments, partic­u­larly given the expec­ted increases in mail-in ballot requests and the budget­ary short­falls due to the pandemic.

Lawmakers from both parties have called for changes that have disrup­ted services to be reversed and soun­ded alarms about them taking place ahead of an elec­tion. Facing intense criti­cism, Post­mas­ter General Louis DeJoy announced on August 18 that he is “suspend­ing” some of the changes until after the elec­tion, but it’s not clear if changes that have already been made, like the removal of mail­boxes and sort­ing machines, will be reversed.

The House is sched­uled to return from its August break on Saturday to vote on emer­gency legis­la­tion to fund the Postal Service with a $25 billion grant and block changes that have slowed down services. DeJoy is sched­uled to testify in front of an urgent House Over­sight Commit­tee hear­ing on August 24.

How could this impact the elec­tion?

The pandemic has promp­ted record numbers of voters to request mail ballots in recent elec­tions, and these numbers are likely to swell lead­ing up to Novem­ber. With coronavirus cases surging in parts of the coun­try, many voters may be ill or worried about voting in person. An estim­ated 80 million mail ballots could be cast, which would be double the number in 2016.

The Postal Service recently warned 46 states and the District of Columbia that it cannot guar­an­tee all mail-in and absentee ballots will arrive in time to be coun­ted, which means that many voters would be disen­fran­chised. In this year’s primar­ies, that happened to at least 65,000 people.

Voting by mail is a safe, secure, and an increas­ingly popu­lar way to cast a ballot, and the only way for some Amer­ic­ans to exer­cise this consti­tu­tional right. Citizens in some rural areas can only vote by mail because they do not have voting precincts. For many seni­ors, disabled resid­ents, and indi­gen­ous people living on remote tribal land, it is the only feas­ible way to have their say in elec­tions.

Using private compan­ies such as UPS and FedEx is not possible in most states because vari­ous laws and regu­la­tions require a post­mark that can only be made by the USPS, and there are prohib­i­tions against private parties collect­ing and deliv­er­ing ballots. Further, using the compan­ies would be prohib­it­ively expens­ive for many states as well as voters. For example, a FedEx envel­ope costs at least $8.50, which is more than 15 times the Postal Service’s typical fee of 55 cents. Reli­ance on private compan­ies would leave many voters disen­fran­chised, since unlike the Postal Service, they are not required to be every­where.

What can be done to protect Amer­ic­ans’ abil­ity to use mail ballots?

This is not the time to slash costs and over­haul the Postal Service — the agency should be adequately funded and staffed to ensure it can handle an anti­cip­ated spike in mail ballots during a key elec­tion taking place in a pandemic.

The USPS ought to do everything it can to ensure that elec­tion mater­i­als are delivered before dead­lines. That means imme­di­ately restor­ing over­time policies, going back to prior­it­iz­ing mail ballots, and work­ing with elec­tion offi­cials to under­stand their require­ments in order to protect Amer­ic­ans’ right to vote.

To help give the USPS ample time to deliver all mail ballots, citizens voting by mail can do their part by request­ing absentee or mail ballots as soon as possible and either drop­ping them off in desig­nated loca­tions or mail­ing them well ahead of Elec­tion Day.

And elec­ted lead­ers, instead of finan­cially starving the USPS and under­min­ing its abil­ity to do its crit­ical job, need to fund the agency and support its vital role of help­ing Amer­ic­ans exer­cise their right to vote.