The politics of postage
Politics | The upcoming election during a pandemic makes solving the U.S. Postal Service’s problems more urgent
by Kyle Ziemnick
Posted 8/13/20, 01:27 pm
WASHINGTON—Public scrutiny of the U.S. Postal Service is reaching new heights as the agency deals with budget problems, partisan attacks, and questions about its handling of mail-in ballots.
Last week, a federal judge in New York ruled that election boards in the state had to go back and count thousands of absentee ballots they initially disqualified because they lacked a postmark. U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres ordered officials to include any ballot missing a postmark but received by June 25, two days after New York’s primary election.
Democrats accuse the Postal Service of self-sabotage, while Republicans say situations like the one in New York prove the untrustworthiness of voting by mail.
“They want $3.5 billion for something that will turn out to be fraudulent,” President Donald Trump said on Thursday. “That’s election money, basically.” He added that if the Postal Service received funding, it would be able to handle mail-in voting. Democrats, including presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign, accused the president of holding the funding hostage to prevent U.S. citizens from voting by mail.
New Postmaster General Louis DeJoy recently revamped the agency, which included the firing of more than 20 executives and putting strict limits on overtime.
DeJoy said he expects a surge in election mail volume due to the coronavirus pandemic but that the Postal Service could handle it. “However … we cannot correct the errors of election boards if they fail to deploy processes that take our normal processing and delivery standards into account,” he added.
On Aug. 6, the Postal Service reported a $2.2 billion deficit in this year’s second quarter, continuing a sea of red ink that has dogged the agency for the past 15 years.
The Postal Service is the only government agency expected to fund itself through sales. While package deliveries to homebound Americans were up more than 50 percent from April through June, continued declines in first-class and business mail offset those gains. Costs increased significantly to pay for personal protective equipment and replace workers who got sick or chose to stay home in fear of catching COVID-19, DeJoy said.
In 2006, Congress passed a law requiring it to pay in advance for the health benefits of postal retirees.
“I didn’t think it was fair; no other company had been asked to do that kind of thing,” David Woods, a former postmaster in Maryland, told me.
The liberal Institute for Policy Studies noted that without those payments, the Postal Service would have turned a profit for six consecutive years. The agency has simply ignored the payments for years and defaulted on them, which helped contribute to an overall deficit despite positive cash flow.
Even with all of the Postal Service’s problems, most of its customers have not reported major slowdowns in delivery times, and public confidence in the agency has remained high. In June, The Harris Poll released a list of the 100 most essential companies to U.S. citizens during the pandemic. The metrics included public trust, COVID-19 response effectiveness, and overall importance. The Postal Service ranked first, above every other private company on the list.
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Kyle is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.