How the U.S. mail became a presidential campaign issue

  • President Donald Trump attends a news conference Wednesday in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington.

    President Donald Trump attends a news conference Wednesday in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington. Associated Press

Updated 8/13/2020 10:38 AM

Rarely has the U.S. Postal Service found itself a top issue in a presidential election. But the coronavirus has turned up the pressure in two ways. It's exacerbated the postal service's balance-sheet problems, making the agency more in need of direct government help. At the same time, record numbers of Americans are expected to receive and cast their ballots by mail in advance of the Nov. 3 election, hoping to avoid crowds of people at polling places. That prospect greatly troubles President Donald Trump, who is on those ballots seeking a second term, and who has specifically tied postal service funding to the vote-by-mail issue.

1. What's the issue with voting by mail?


Trump has warned that what he calls "universal mail-in voting" will result in "the most corrupt election in our nation's history" and at one point even suggested that delaying the election until the pandemic eases would be a preferable option. He says he supports use of absentee ballots as in past elections -- by voters who request one in advance because they have an Election Day conflict -- but objects to making them broadly available to most or all voters, requested or not. "With millions of mail-in ballots being sent out, who knows where they are going, and to whom?" he tweeted on June 22. There's no evidence that voting by mail opens the door to widespread fraud and little evidence to support another Trump contention, that vote-by-mail "doesn't work out well for Republicans."

2. How widespread will voting by mail be?

In states with the most expansive policies -- California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington, plus the District of Columbia -- all voters will automatically receive a ballot in the mail, and most of those states will pay return postage. At the other extreme, states including Missouri, Mississippi and Texas are still reserving mail-in "absentee" ballots only for those who can cite an approved reason, such as that they will be away on Election Day, serving jury duty, or are disabled, elderly or incarcerated. Many other states sit somewhere in the middle: A prospective voter must request a mail-in "absentee" ballot in advance but doesn't need to provide a reason for wanting it or can simply cite concerns about the coronavirus.

3. What's happening inside the postal service?

It's undergoing a shake-up under a new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, a North Carolina businessman and major donor to the Republican Party whom Trump appointed in May. In July, citing a need to cut costs, DeJoy instructed employees to leave mail at distribution centers if the alternative is delaying deliveries on a given day. On Aug. 7, according to The Washington Post, DeJoy introduced a new organization chart that reassigned or displaced 23 postal executives, among them the two top executives overseeing day-to-day operations. Rep. Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who leads the House's subcommittee on postal oversight, called the reorganization "deliberate sabotage to disrupt mail service on the eve of the election -- an election that hinges on mail-in ballots." DeJoy said in a memo that he wanted to "realign the organization to provide greater focus on the core aspects of our business and to give us a better chance for future success."

4. Why are costs an issue?

The postal service is one of the largest U.S. employers, with more than 630,000 career and contract workers. It had suffered years of financial decline even before mail volume collapsed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Expenses have outpaced revenue for 13 years straight, with net losses totaling $77.8 billion through fiscal 2019. The postal service hasn't been able to make required payments for employee health care and pension benefits, including a congressional mandate from 2006 that required it, unlike other federal agencies, to fully pre-fund health benefits for future retirees over a period of 10 years. Unfunded health care and pension liabilities neared $120 billion as of Sept. 30, 2019. The Government Accountability Office wrote in a May 7 report that the postal service's "mission and financial solvency are increasingly in peril" if Congress didn't give it a lifeline or overhaul its business model.

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5. What can be done?

Democrats in Congress have tried, so far without success, to send $25 billion in aid to the postal service as part of the government's response to the coronavirus, plus $3.6 billion in election funding to assist states afford expanded mail-in and early in-person voting. If Democrats "don't get those two items, that means you can't have universal mail-in voting," Trump said on Aug. 12. Trump earlier said he would oppose any emergency aid unless the agency quadrupled shipping prices on online retailers. He's long contended that the postal service loses money delivering packages for Inc., though the agency's chief financial officer said in 2017 that such claims are "inaccurate." (A 2006 law requires it to cover its costs on package delivery.) Amazon's chief executive officer, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post, and both have been on the receiving end of Trump's criticism and mockery.

6. Where does this leave voting by mail?

Almost 200 lawsuits have been filed in 42 states and the District of Columbia over the mechanics of voting by mail. On specific rules and procedures, state policies vary widely. Thirty-one require that the signature on the ballot envelope be checked against a signature on file, for instance, while six states and the District of Columbia require a signature but don't check it. Three states require the ballot be notarized. Alabama requires a copy of the voter's ID and a signature from two witnesses or a notary public. Generally speaking, Republicans are seeking tighter regulation of the process, while Democrats are seeking greater leniency. (Conventional wisdom holds that high turnout favors Democrats because it means more nonwhite and low-income voters are participating.)

7. Will all this be resolved before the November election?

Maybe not. If the election is close enough, it might take days if not weeks of counting mail-in ballots to determine the winner. During that time, many of the issues now being litigated might reemerge in new lawsuits and demands for recounts. Election lawyers from both parties can be expected to go through and challenge individual absentee ballots to try to get them thrown out.

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