SAN DIEGO — The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated problems for the U.S. Postal Service and sparked a debate in Washington, D.C., that could carry major ramifications for the November general election.
The U.S. Postal Service, or USPS, has long been America’s most popular public agency; a recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 91% of Americans had favorable opinions about the agency.
Nevertheless the agency has frequently faced financial challenges, which have escalated during the pandemic, as revenue plummeted and mail volume dropped more than 30% from last year.
Federal officials said they expect things to worsen in coming months, projecting mail volume will be down 50% in the second quarter, which runs April through June.
Postmaster General Megan Brennan also told Congress last month she expects USPS will run out of cash by the end of September if it doesn’t receive government assistance, and the service has projected it could lose more than $23 billion over the next 18 months.
Those financial woes — and a partisan debate about financially assisting the agency — has raised the specter that postal services may be limited come November, which would affect the general election, elections officials and researchers said.
“This whole issue of elections and the U.S. Postal Service and the liquidity of the Postal Service really does impact the administration of elections and frankly the ability to conduct elections,” said Michael Vu, the San Diego County registrar of voters.
“It is not just about the voting process; it is also about the (voter) registration and list maintenance processes as well. There are core overall aspects of the election process that have huge tie-ins to the U.S. Postal Service.”
USPS plays an instrumental role in several facets of the election.
The process of voting by mail is arguably the most visible area. In San Diego County — home to more than 1.8 million registered voters — nearly 75% of voters cast their ballots by mail.
All those voters receive their ballots through the postal service, and hundreds of thousands of them directly return their ballot to the registrar through USPS. Others drop the mail ballots off at a ballot box or the registrar’s office.
Active service members and other voters who are stationed abroad also rely almost exclusively on a fully functional Postal Service to be able to cast their ballots.
Vu said USPS has been a reliable and robust partner in assisting with elections, and the agency’s role goes beyond the actual voting process. The Postal Service also factors into how registrars deliver other essential material to voters such as sample ballots and election guidebooks as well as election materials related to voter registration and list maintenance.
Political mailers and pamphlets also are a favorite of campaigns at the local, state and federal level, and they, too, reach voters through the Postal Service.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, election officials throughout California and the country were expecting USPS to play an outsized role in the November election.
Vu noted there has been talk of every registered voter in California being sent a mail ballot, a decision that would have to come from the state.
Beyond that, he added, there also could be more voters requesting mail ballots because they’re concerned about voting in-person during the pandemic.
A limited or defunct USPS has the potential of leaving millions of voters in a lurch, according to elections experts and voting advocates.
Mindy Romero is the executive director of the California Civic Engagement Project, a nonpartisan civic engagement research center based in Sacramento. She said the postal service has always been essential to elections in the U.S. and its role was expected to expand in November in light of the pandemic, she said.
Election officials already were trying to figure out how to safely offer in-person voting in November, she said; now added challenges for USPS would complicate mail ballot voting as well.
Any reductions to USPS staff, service hours or delivery days could lead to delays in voters receiving their ballots and delays in registrars ultimately getting them back and ensuring they’re counted.
She added that certain groups of voters may be more negatively impacted by delays with USPS than others — including younger people and voters of color, two groups that are more likely to turn in mail ballots close to Election Day.
“A healthy and fully functional USPS is a voting rights issue, period,” Romero said. “If the USPS wasn’t around, then you’d see millions of people disenfranchised in California alone.”
Romero said two-thirds of California voters vote by mail.
Despite the essential role USPS plays in elections and the calls of elections experts and voting advocates to help the agency, it is unclear whether lawmakers are going to intervene to rescue the agency.
Although Congress included a $10 billion loan for the agency in the Cares Act Relief package, USPS has yet to receive the funds. President Donald Trump has threatened to block the loan until the service dramatically increases its shipping costs for such online retailers as Amazon.
“(T)hey lose money every time they deliver a package for Amazon or these other internet companies,” Trump said at a recent briefing. “If they’d raise the prices by actually a lot, then you’d find out that the post office could make money or break even.”
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, has clashed repeatedly with Trump in business and in politics.
Another political dimension to discussions about the post office is the growing push to expand vote-by-mail across the country in the face of a pandemic. Democratic lawmakers support expanding vote-by-mail while many Republican lawmakers oppose it.
Regardless of the partisan fighting in D.C., elections officials and election experts think it is unlikely the Postal Service would be left to dissolve outright. Limited funding for the agency seems more of a possibility and could still be problematic, given the shortage of alternatives to replace USPS.
“Ultimately we would find other ways to get voters their ballots; the question is how would you get your ballots back to us,” said Vu, San Diego County’s registrar.
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“What national, international infrastructure is there? ... The whole system is tied on getting materials to voters, whether through paper or electronic means, but getting that material back — over 90% of it is coming through the Postal Service.”
Romero added that alternative delivery services such as FedEx and UPS are too costly to fill the void, and the time is short to find a realistic alternative, as election officials already are making their decisions for November, she said.
It’s in the best interest of Trump and other lawmakers to fully support USPS for at least the current election cycle, she said, if for no other reason than it provides confidence to voters in the election process. It pays to avoid concerns about the legitimacy of an election where millions of people were not able to vote.
“Bottom line, if USPS is not funded or fully funded, we will see people disenfranchised,” Romero said.
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