When I imagine all the possible ways 2020 could get worse, a catastrophic election in one of the greatest Western powers, manipulated by a ‘fascist quasi-dictator’, forcing millions to risk their lives in the name of democracy, alongside the death knell of one of its strongest and most trusted institutions, ranks pretty high on the list. And yet, that is almost exactly what we may face this coming November. Trump’s recent attacks on the US Postal Service (the USPS), while not yet making him a fascist, threaten to undermine one of the most essential agencies America has, eroding the very roots of democracy. With two epidemics to tackle, COVID-19 and an increasingly dwindling public faith in democratic practices only magnified by a leader constantly evading them, America’s presidential election this year will undoubtedly be like no other.
The USPS has long been fighting for its life financially, the first bullets fired by Republicans decades ago. The most crippling blow, however, came in 2006, when the Bush administration passed a mandate ordering the USPS to pre-fund workers’ pensions 75 years in advance, a requirement no other federal agency has ever been burdened with. Every year since then has seen it drop further and further into debt, now with a staggering bill of $14 billion waiting for it. Despite being entirely at congress’ beck and call and despite providing a constitutionally binding service, it has received no federal funds since 1982 – its only financial lifeline is direct revenue from mail deliveries. Thanks in part to the coronavirus, these have already fallen by nearly one-third compared with last year and as a result, it expects to add $22 billion more to its continuing operating losses by the end of 2021. Although the USPS continues to take in a profit notwithstanding its debt payments, a first-class stamp costs a mere 55 cents. It seems as if the USPS can but watch as its own casket is prepared to be gracelessly lowered into the ground.
Trump certainly appears eager to attend its wake in any case, having only amplified the chronic nature of their collapse. Calling the Post Office “a joke”, “horrible”, and “corrupt”, he has degraded the USPS at every possible chance. This undermines public confidence in the integrity of postal voting, already at a dangerously low level. He has threatened to veto a coronavirus relief package explicitly because it included emergency funding for the agency. Without the necessary funding, the USPS will be unable to cover their operating costs and expect to run out of money this fiscal year. He has appointed Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General, a major Republican donor with significant investments in USPS competitors, who has, in turn, implemented near-fatal cuts to the service, including banning overtime and removing collection boxes. The USPS itself has admitted that these restrictions have been the primary cause of a massive surge in delays and undelivered mail this year. He has promised to appeal to the Supreme Court if he believes the election results have been invalidated by postal voting. He has, essentially, embarked on a brutal and ruthless crusade against the organisation. At a time when the economy’s strength is being tested the most in living memory and essential services must be prioritised, the omission of arguably the most essential of services from Trump’s attention is glaring. If the death of the USPS had seemed certain but distant before, the sound of the hearse starting up is now almost unmistakable.
In the case that Trump’s intentions weren’t already clear enough, he has kindly spelled them out for us: “They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting…. Sort of a crazy thing.” This is a public and unadulterated attempt to sway the presidential election through suppressing postal voting. With no supporting evidence whatsoever, Trump has accused mail-in ballots of electoral fraud, both to purposely deter voters from using the method and to cast doubt over the legitimacy of any results not in his favour. In the first presidential debate, he repeatedly emphasised this point, saying it would lead to “fraud like you’ve never seen.” (This conveniently ignores the fact that he himself votes by mail.) Indeed, such conspiracy theories are so far from the truth that studies have shown it is more likely for an American to be struck by lightning than to commit mail voting fraud. Yet if nothing is done to silence this tirade of abuse, these claims may well send millions of voters to the crowded ballot box, driving them to ignore social distancing if they want to fulfil their constitutionally given right to vote. The method by which an American citizen fills their ballot is ultimately their decision, but they should not be forced to pick between risking losing their rights or losing their lives.
In any given presidential election, the USPS is essential: one in six Americans live in states with no online voter registration and roughly a quarter will send mail-in ballots. With the coronavirus making in-person voting considerably less attractive, that number could double in 2020. In the absence of a functional post office, this risks disenfranchisement on an unprecedented scale. The primaries earlier this year were a useful test run. They were also a mess. At least 65,000 ballots were rejected because they arrived too late to be counted. If Trump succeeds in killing off the USPS, or at least in significantly delaying its services, the presidential election can hardly be considered democratic.
We are not alone in recognising the acute political danger Trump’s actions pose. In the past month, two federal judges have issued historic and unprecedented decisions attempting to prevent, and undo, any harm already done to both the service and the election. DeJoy has been barred from making further alterations to USPS policies, must reverse all recent changes, and must immediately prioritise every postal ballot. The rulings reveal a common pattern of thinking: this attack on America’s postal service is an attack on democracy and must be stopped at all costs. While a step in the right direction, the USPS’ life remains threatened by Trump’s callous comments and refusal to provide essential funding. This is but a brief moment of relief, one final gasp for air, before the organisation’s floundering resumes.
Irrespective of November’s potential horror story, the USPS is a vital service provided to Americans and deserves to be saved. Nearly 250 years old, it has a rich and surprisingly interesting history. It is so dedicated to connecting the entire nation, delivering 48% of the world’s mail, that it even uses mules to reach those living at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The isolated, the elderly, the sick – all rely on the postal service to check up on them and keep them in contact with the rest of the world. The Post Office’s star quality derives not from any breath-taking ability to rake in profits, as Republican critics overly focused on profitability have imagined, but from its magical powers of uniting a nation otherwise so riddled with divisions. Sending not only letters and postcards from corner to corner of America, but ideas and ambitions, hopes and dreams, it is a rare example of an institution continuing to uphold what is good and right. No nation is too diverse, no house too remote, no ballot box too full – the postal service will deliver to anyone and everyone if it can just survive. The USPS must be saved. The presidential election must be conducted fairly and democratically. The two come hand in hand, and, as the funeral procession edges closer to the ballot box, I wonder if the American public will realise in time who is driving the hearse and how to vote them out.