politics

How Changes to the USPS Might Affect Voting by Mail

Photo: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

In a tweet Monday morning, President Trump attacked Nevada Democrats for their efforts to expand mail-in voting ahead of this fall’s general election. Along with accusing them of trying to “steal” the election, Trump noted that the USPS is not equipped to handle an increase in absentee ballots. Trump should know, as he’s the one ensuring that the USPS is not equipped to handle an increase in absentee ballots.

It’s long been clear that Trump doesn’t like the USPS — “The Postal Service is a joke,” he said in April — and, in June, he finally got someone to do his bidding there. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, whose qualifications include raising a truckload of money for Trump, has begun to implement changes some say will make mail-in voting less efficient and less fair, which seems to be exactly what Trump wants.

Here, what we know about Trump’s attacks on the U.S. Postal Service and how they could affect voting this November.

What’s happening at the USPS?

Changes are afoot under DeJoy, a North Carolina logistics manager who, as postmaster general, seems eager to carry out his new boss’s vendetta against the nearly 250-year-old institution. Trump has been bashing the USPS for years, often linking his criticism to the prices it charges Amazon for delivery. Despite targeting the USPS, Trump has never been good about hiding the true target of his ire. He’s less concerned with the USPS than with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, which Trump hates.

There was little surprise, then, when DeJoy immediately set about implementing an “operational pivot” at the USPS. Instead of prioritizing the delivery of every piece of mail, carriers are to “leave mail behind at distribution centers” if it delays them from their routes, the Washington Post reported. A memo about the changes warned workers that, as part of the changes, they may “see mail left behind or mail on the workroom floor.” Overtime, which can be needed to ensure that all of that day’s mail is delivered, is also being eliminated.

Practically speaking, these changes mean some mail could arrive later than expected, and some could simply fall through the cracks. The New York Times reported last Friday that it’s already happening, with “reports of letters and packages being delayed by as many as several days.” This isn’t just a tangible problem — delivery of medication, for example, could be delayed — it also undercuts confidence in one of America’s most trusted and egalitarian institutions.

What’s the explanation for the changes?

The moves are ostensibly in response to financial woes at the USPS brought on by a yearslong decrease in first-class mail and a congressional mandate that the service prepay billions every year in retiree health-care costs. The pandemic hasn’t helped, but it hasn’t hurt as much as it could have. While the volume of some forms of mail, including first-class and marketing materials, has decreased, an increase in packages has stabilized revenues.

Not that help isn’t needed. The CARES Act authorized the USPS to borrow $10 billion from the Treasury Department, but that money was held hostage for months as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Trump demanded concessions. Trump said rates would need to be quadrupled, and Mnuchin reportedly fought for control of top-level USPS decisions. Just last week, the terms of the loan were finalized, with the USPS agreeing to disclose the details of some of its most lucrative contracts to the Treasury Department in exchange for the lifeline.

How does all this affect mail-in voting?

Many have also linked the crippling of the USPS to Trump’s attacks on mail-in ballots ahead of the November election. Wendy Fields, executive director of Democracy Initiative, told the Times that Trump is “deliberately orchestrating suppression and using the post office as a tool to do it.” In his eulogy for John Lewis, Barack Obama referenced efforts at “undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that is going to be dependent on mailed-in ballots so people don’t get sick.”

Election officials are worried that slower mail service will mean ballots are not delivered in a timely manner. In some cases, they may not be delivered at all. A struggling USPS may also fail to return ballots in time for counting, raising the possibility of mass disenfranchisement. This is not a theoretical concern. The 2020 primaries saw tens of thousands of ballots rejected because they arrived past the Election Day deadline.

Given these possibilities and Trump’s well-known opposition to voting by mail, logic might suggest that he would attempt to strengthen the USPS to alleviate those concerns. Instead, he’s weakening it and then using that weakness as a reason to argue against mail-in voting. On Monday, after Nevada lawmakers passed a bill that would have the state mail a paper ballot to all active voters, Trump called the move “an illegal late night coup” and wrote that the “Post Office could never handle the Traffic of Mail-In Votes without preparation.” Rather than help with that preparation, he pledged to sue.