President Donald Trump admitted last week that he plans to block desperately needed funding for the U.S. Postal Service because it will make it more difficult for Americans to vote by mail in the Nov. 3 election.
“Now they need that money in order to make the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump said Thursday in an interview on Fox Business. “But if they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting.”
It was a brazen admission of voter suppression. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, more Americans than ever are expected to cast their votes by mail, with roughly 80 million doing so, more than double the number in the 2016 election. Supporters of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are far more likely to say they plan to vote by mail than Trump supporters, according to a recent poll.
For months, Trump has attacked the legitimacy of mail-in voting, inaccurately describing the process as highly vulnerable to fraud. In fact, voting fraud is extremely rare — both with in-person and mail-in voting. All states allow some form of voting by mail, although some make it more difficult than others.
A colossal increase in mail-in ballots means a huge increase in work for the USPS. Already cash-strapped by a 2006 law requiring it to pre-fund its pension plans, the agency’s finances have been further strained by the pandemic.
In April, the Postal Service requested a $25 billion injection of cash and an additional $50 billion in grants and loans to offset COVID-related losses. House Democrats have pushed for previous stimulus packages responding to the pandemic to include the $25 billion, but that proposal stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. Now Trump, having made clear he sees the Postal Service’s ability to function properly as a key threat to his reelection, has threatened to veto emergency funding legislation, a move that risks disenfranchising millions of voters.
Meanwhile, the new head of the USPS — a major Trump donor — has been reducing the Postal Service’s capacity ahead of the election in what many critics fear is an attempt to further hobble its capacity to process mailed ballots
Despite Trump’s broad-daylight admission of his scheme, a considerable push also is underway to pretend nothing is actually happening to hamper the Postal Service. The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote Monday that the idea Trump is politicizing the agency with the goal of influencing the election is an “evidence-free conspiracy theory” akin to asserting that the USPS “is being infiltrated by alien lizard people posing as letter carriers.” And Trump himself has muddied the waters by claiming on Twitter he is simply trying to “SAVE THE POST OFFICE!”
Furthering the confusion, in the understandable hysteria about the potential undermining of the voting process, some misleading information has circulated on Twitter ― not every viral photo of uprooted mailboxes is directly tied to a conspiracy. So what exactly is happening at the USPS?
A GOP Megadonor In Charge
Blocking funding isn’t the only way Trump and his allies can interfere with the Postal Service. In May, the USPS Board of Governors (which is headed by a former Republican National Committee chairman) appointed Louis DeJoy, a top donor to Trump’s reelection campaign and to the RNC, as postmaster general.
DeJoy, a North Carolina businessman whose family has invested millions in USPS competitors or contractors, has contributed more than $1.2 million to the Trump Victory Fund and millions more to other GOP candidates and groups. His appointment marked the first time in more than 20 years that a postmaster general came from outside the Postal Service.
Shortly after taking over, DeJoy banned employees from working overtime and making extra trips to ensure on-time deliveries. “One aspect of these changes that may be difficult for employees is that — temporarily — we may see mail left behind or mail on the workroom floor or docks,” a memo to employees warned. The next month, DeJoy reassigned or fired 23 Postal Service executives, a move that concentrated power around the postmaster general.
DeJoy justified the changes as necessary cost-cutting measures — but it resulted in slower mail and fears that the Postal Service will be ill-equipped to handle the influx of mail-in ballots in the fall.
On Tuesday, in response to mounting criticism, DeJoy announced he would suspend “some operational initiatives ... that have been raised as areas of concern” until after the election.
46 States At Risk Of Late Ballot Delivery
The financial crush of the pandemic combined with DeJoy’s internal restructuring has created a dramatic slowdown in USPS delivery times. Small business owners say packages are arriving to their customers weeks late, which threatens to cost them future business. People whose lives depend on mail-order prescription drugs say they are missing doses as they wait for the medicine to emerge from the mail backlog.
Late last month, the USPS warned officials in 46 states and the District of Columbia that it could not guarantee that all ballots cast by mail would be delivered in time to be counted in the election. In response to these warnings, some states have moved deadlines to either require voters to return their ballots earlier or to allow more time for ballots to arrive before finalizing results.
In Pennsylvania, a swing state, election officials have asked the state Supreme Court to extend the mail-in voting deadline by three days, citing concerns about mail delivery speed. “To state it simply: voters who apply for mail-in ballots in the last week of the application period and return their complete ballot by mail will, through no fault of their own, likely be disenfranchised,” lawyers for the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf (D) wrote in a legal filing.
The Republican Party is spending millions of dollars fighting Democratic efforts to expand access to mail-in voting. “My biggest risk is that we don’t win lawsuits,” Trump told Politico in June.
Even as Trump fights to restrict mail-in ballot, he is eager to make sure ballots from his own supporters get delivered on time. His reelection campaign has already sent materials to voters in Florida, North Carolina, and Iowa ― all states that polls show are up for grabs ― urging them to request their absentee ballot immediately. Mailers sent to voters in North Carolina include a strategically doctored image of a tweet from Trump.
The part visible in the mailer reads, ”... Absentee Ballots are fine because you have to go through a precise process to get your voting privilege.” The blurred out part of the tweet continues, “Not so with Mail-Ins. Rigged Election!!! 20% fraudulent ballots?”
No meaningful difference exists between absentee ballots and mail-in ballots, despite Trump’s continued efforts to argue otherwise.
Internal Sabotage Or Routine Maintenance?
Last Thursday, VICE reported that the USPS was removing mail sorting machines from some facilities throughout the country, without providing an explanation to workers. VICE later obtained internal documents showing that the Postal Service had planned to remove some of its letter sorting machines before DeJoy was appointed, although the documents do not provide a reason for the plans.
At the same time, people started posting pictures of the iconic blue USPS letter collection boxes being loaded onto trucks and driven away.
In response to the backlash, the Postal Service said in a statement that it “reviews collection box density every year on a routine basis to identify redundant/seldom used collection boxes as First-Class mail volume continues to decline.” The agency agreed to pause the removal of mailboxes until after Election Day to alleviate concerns.
Under regular circumstances, the removal of some mail sorting machines and mailboxes might have gone unnoticed. Against the backdrop of Trump’s threats to withhold USPS funding and DeJoy’s cost-cutting measures, both developments appeared ominous. But it’s not immediately clear that either is related to Trump’s reelection strategy.
What Are Democrats Doing?
Democrats are pushing legislation that would provide emergency funding for the USPS and block the Postal Service from implementing any changes to its operations or level of service it had in place at the beginning of the year until after the pandemic has ended. But any legislative proposal has to secure the backing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a Trump ally.
Democrats’ best shot at passing funding for the Postal Service is to make it a political liability for any lawmaker to vote against it. The USPS is popular among both Democrats and Republicans; unlike its private competitors, the agency is obligated to provide affordable delivery service to everyone in the country, even if they live in remote, hard to access areas.
DeJoy is scheduled to testify on Friday before a Senate committee and next week before a House committee. These hearings provide Democrats an opportunity to grill the postmaster general on the political motives behind his recent funding and staffing moves, as well as a chance to highlight the ways in which Americans stand to suffer if the Postal Service is allowed to fail.