President Trump and his Republican advisers appear to be laying the groundwork for presidential election chaos on November 3.
Part of the plan seems to be to allow the coronavirus-slammed U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to run out of money in September, throwing the mail service into crisis, possibly disenfranchising everyone who votes by mail.
The postal service is essential for U.S. elections. The U.S. military has depended on vote-by-mail since 1864. Five states now conduct elections entirely by mail — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. The other 45 states allow voting by absentee ballot by mail. Because of the coronavirus, many additional states and localities are currently considering universal vote-by-mail. Killing or weakening the U.S. Postal Service would essentially guarantee election chaos in November.
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The postal service does not ordinarily receive taxpayer funds; it is the only government agency expected to fund itself, via sale of stamps and services such as money orders. Now, a combination of recent events has thrown USPS into financial turmoil. It started in 2006 when Congress required USPS to set aside cash sufficient to cover the cost of post-retirement health benefits, 75 years into the future, for its 600,000 employees. This unusual financial burden, combined with a 30 percent drop in the volume of mail after the coronavirus shut down the economy, put USPS into financial crisis. In April, the postal service estimated it will lose $22 billion in the next 18 months while it continues to deliver medicines, food, personal protective equipment (masks, gloves, test kits), and all kinds of household necessities to every address in the U.S., no matter how rural or remote, regardless of cost.
When the first $2 trillion coronavirus bailout was written, Democrats and Republicans agreed on a $13 billion direct cash payment to the postal service to keep it afloat. But President Trump announced that he would not sign the bill if it included any direct payments to bail out USPS. Eventually, a compromise was reached: The CARES Act signed in late March contained a $10 billion loan to the postal service subject to approval by Trump’s Treasury Department.
Polling shows that 80 percent of the public wants vote-by-mail to avoid the dangers of standing in line at polling stations. Furthermore, about 60 million people living in rural areas would be hurt badly by loss of mail service, which they depend upon daily for medicines, household necessities and information. So why would the president and his close advisers want to disable the postal service?
They probably have four motives:
First, Trump has described the USPS as a “delivery boy” for online retailers, chiefly Amazon. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, which has relentlessly fact-checked Trump’s frequent lies. So hurting the Post Office seems part of a presidential vendetta against Mr. Bezos.
Second, the anti-government billionaires who have gained powerful influence within the Republican Party since 1980 have long sought to privatize the mail service, kill the powerful postal worker unions and benefit Republican benefactors like FedEx and UPS.
Third, Republicans believe that vote-by-mail will increase voter turnout, which they believe will cost them victory. To win, many Republicans believe (and admit) that they must disenfranchise people of color, recent immigrants, the young, the elderly and those with disabilities.
Republican strategist and founder of the ultra-right Heritage Foundation, Paul Weyrich, acknowledged this back in 1980, saying “I don’t want everybody to vote…. Our leverage in the election, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
On March 30, Trump spilled the beans himself when he said, if it were easier to vote in the U.S., Republicans would never get elected. The president made the comments as he dismissed a congressional Democrat-led push for reforms such as vote-by-mail, same-day voter registration and early voting to help states run elections safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. “They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” Trump said. “We don’t want anyone to do mail-in ballots,” the president said in May.
The fourth reason is far more speculative and more sinister. Current polls show Trump trailing Joe Biden by 8 to 12 percentage points if the election were held today. This has the president worried. In such circumstances, the president “charts a consistent direction, toward chaos, which he then seeks to exploit to his advantage,” as Steve Coll has observed.
A chaotic, delayed, postponed, or disputed coronavirus-inflected election on November 3 might offer Trump an opportunity to go full-bore authoritarian and claim victory no matter what the vote count eventually revealed about the preference of the people. A secure election requires action now. Saving the postal service is the essential first step.
On May 15, the House passed the “HEROES Act,” which includes a $25 billion cash bailout for the postal service, but Senate Republicans have promised to “cast it aside” and the White House has issued a veto threat. A large citizens’ campaign called “A Grand Alliance” is urging everyone to take action now to save the postal service.