The US Postal Service (USPS) is in financial trouble. It’s losing about $2 billion a month as mail marketers halt campaigns due to the sudden pandemic-induced economic meltdown.
Yet the federal agency is more essential than ever, delivering mail to the most remote American addresses. And it will only become more critical as the November presidential election approaches and mail-in voting grows more appealing.
Still, USPS can’t seem to catch a break even as the federal government pushes hundreds of billions of dollars in economic stimulus funds into major industries and small businesses.
Lawmakers say that without serious help, USPS only has enough money to last through about September. Although USPS couriers are famously committed to completing their rounds despite snow, rain, heat, gloom of night—or the coronavirus crisis—they might have finally met their match in US president Donald Trump.
Trump reportedly threatened to stall any stimulus package providing money to the mail service, which is enshrined in the Constitution. The $2.2 trillion CARES Act, passed in late March, included a $10 billion US Treasury-backed loan to USPS over treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin’s objections. However, that loan hasn’t yet been approved and it was offered instead of a $13 billion direct grant initially proposed by legislators.
It’s not entirely clear why the president is so resistant to helping the postal service survive, though he’s tried to explain himself. It may well have something to do with his personal animus toward Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post. Amazon contracts extensively with USPS for last-leg deliveries and Trump thinks the company doesn’t pay the agency enough for the service, or so he has long complained. Or it might be related to a belief among some Republicans that the agency be privatized.
No matter his reasons, the consequences of abandoning the postal service now could be disastrous for pandemic-era elections. A robust and properly-funded USPS, coupled with a nationwide push for mail-in ballots, could ensure that citizens don’t have to choose between the right to vote and the desire to avoid infection in November, as Wisconsin voters were forced to do last week when participating in general and presidential primary elections.
Politicians on both sides of the ideological aisle increasingly support a widespread mail-in voting option in view of recent developments. Five states—Colorado, Oregon, Hawaii, Utah, and Washington— already send ballots to all voters, holding mail-only elections. In 28 states and the District of Columbia, any voter can request a mail ballot. But 17 states still have restrictions on mail-in ballots. Voting rights advocates say these will harm voter turnout and threaten public health, urging that they be lifted.
The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy advocacy group based in New York, last week argued that a mail-in option for the presidential elections is critical. It is pushing for $2 billion in aid from Congress to states to ensure that localities are prepared with sufficient ballots and other infrastructure in time for the November election.
In Wisconsin’s election, a backlog in sending ballots out to voters who requested them forced thousands of citizens to either brave the dangers of crowded polling places or choose not to vote. Meanwhile, more than half of the volunteers who typically work at polling locations are over 60 years old, which means they are especially vulnerable if infected by the coronavirus.
“Restricting who can vote by mail this year at best makes voting unnecessarily difficult, and at worst puts their citizens at unnecessary risk of catching the coronavirus,” wrote Brennan Center representative Matthew Harwood. “If these states are to provide all voters a vote-by-mail option before the November election, they must start preparations now.”
Former first lady Michelle Obama is convinced. She just endorsed a new legislative proposal advanced by Democrats in the House and Senate to save the integrity of elections and preserve public health amid the pandemic, according to Axios.
“There is nothing partisan about striving to live up to the promise of our country; making the democracy we all cherish more accessible; and protecting our neighbors, friends and loved ones as they participate in this cornerstone of American life,” she said in a statement.
The legislation would ensure that every citizen can vote in absentia and extend deadlines for requesting mail-in ballots. “The Resilient Elections During Quarantines and Natural Disasters Act of 2020 addresses the serious threat to our democracy posed by COVID-19 by requiring states and localities, within 30 days, to create and publish a plan to operate their elections in the event that large numbers of voters or poll workers have been subjected to a mandatory quarantine or a self-quarantine at the advice of government officials or health experts,” lawmakers explain in a summary of the proposed legislation.
Yet Trump appears intent on leaving the USPS in the lurch all while bashing mail-in voting options. On Sunday, he repeated an unsupported contention he’d been advancing throughout the last week that voting by mail is shady.
It’s worth noting, though, that the president has voted by absentee ballot himself, most recently in 2018.