A common thread that runs throughout the history of the United States is the expansion of the franchise. Today, attacks on the U.S. Postal Service are part of efforts to undermine access to the ballot.
Voting: A History of Expansion
Early in our history the right to vote was limited to white males, often with strict property qualifications. By the time of Andrew Jackson, the franchise had extended to white males generally. While the primary reason for the Civil War was the elimination of slavery, the logical conclusion of that conflict was the 15th Amendment, which prohibited denial of the franchise based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The 19th Amendment extended the franchise to women, and the Snyder Act of 1924 extended the vote to Native Americans by granting them full citizenship rights. The 26th Amendment extended the voting age to 18-year-olds, acknowledging that if one was old enough to fight and die for their country they were old enough to exercise the franchise.
The fundamental premise of our Constitution is that sovereignty lies within the entity known as We the People. Voting, the exercise of our basic right to choose our leaders, should be our most cherished right because it enshrines voice and participation granting the dignity of self-government.
And yet for all its acknowledged value and importance there have still been reactionary and revanchist powers that sought to limit and confine the franchise. The powerful and elite rarely willingly share their wealth and power. Each step in extending the franchise was met with resistance.
Ninety-five years after passage of the 15th Amendment, the 1965 Voting Rights Act finally enshrined mechanisms to fulfill the vision of participation that is the cornerstone of American democracy. The Voting Rights Act was renewed by Congress several times, most recently in 2006 when it passed in the House by a vote of 390 – 33 and in the Senate unanimously. And yet elements, small recalcitrant elements of our society, still begrudge this most fundamental and basic of rights. In an infamous decision that stands with Dred Scott as among the most unjust acts of the Supreme Court, the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision eviscerated key parts of the Voting Rights Act. Predictably the same bad actors who have fought voting rights took the opportunity to find new and effective ways to suppress voting, especially among minority communities.
Video courtesy of Stand by Your Mail, a private campaign to support the U.S. Postal Service.
Attacking the Postal Service, Attacking the Ballot
Now we have a president who, fearing he will lose an honest and fair election, takes every opportunity to call into question the integrity of our elections and voting practices. While we struggle as a nation with a deadly pandemic, this president has done everything in his power to call into question an obvious solution that will make voting safer, easier, and more accessible. That solution is voting by mail.
Several states already vote exclusively by mail and every state has some provision for mail voting even if limited to excuse-required absentee ballots. In this time of pandemic, voting by mail makes sense and we should make every effort to assist states in providing vote by mail.
The president has charged, without evidence, proof, or data, that voting by mail is fraught with fraud, but like much of what he says, his allegations are self-interested flailing lacking substance or integrity. Worse yet, his attacks on voting by mail have been fully aided and abetted by the Republican Party (as discussed in this Politico article).
The plain and simple fact is that our election system shows very little evidence of in-person voting fraud and virtually no evidence of significant amounts of fraud connected to voting by mail. To refute the baseless charges of a proven liar is to dignify the rantings of a desperate man.
The problem is that the president’s views on voting by mail may be having an effect on the operations of the Postal Service. There have been numerous reports that mail is being delayed as a result of changes in delivery procedures implemented by the new postmaster general in June, and some have charged that this is happening to mess with voting by mail. The postmaster general has naturally denied this.
Then there’s the recent report from The Capitol Forum, a Washington lobbying and reporting shop, describing a proposal by USPS leadership to raise the postage on ballots sent by states to voters from 20 cents to 55 cents a piece. A USPS spokesperson has flatly denied this, telling Kevin Kosar in an email, “The baseless assertion that we intend to raise prices in advance of the upcoming presidential election in order to restrict voting by mail is wholly without merit, and frivolous.” But there’s probably more to this story.
While ballots being returned by voters to election centers travel as first class mail, when ballots are sent out to voters they sometimes go at the cheaper — and slower — marketing mail rate (about 20 cents). The Capitol Forum memo could be based on a misunderstanding. It’s possible that postal leadership is telling election officials they should send out ballots at the first class rate in order for them to be delivered in time for voters to return them by the state’s deadline.
That explanation jibes with a recent article in the Guardian. Tammy Patrick, a voting-by-mail expert at the Democracy Fund, says that in the past the Postal Service “bent over backwards” to deliver ballots in a timely way close to election deadlines, but now it’s giving out mixed messages about whether or not they would go to such lengths this fall. USPS officials have indicated that they will more strictly enforce the delivery times guaranteed by the different classes of mail (two to five for first class, 3-10 days for marketing mail). Rather than giving priority to election mail, says Patrick, the Postal Service is now saying election officials “will get speed for the delivery they pay for.”
New Policies Threaten Voters’ Rights
There’s more evidence that the Postal Service may be changing its policy on election mail in this report from the Postal Service Office of the Inspector General about the 2018 midterms. The report says that management at several mail processing facilities told the inspector general that they treated all election mail, regardless of the rate on the envelope, as first class. That may no longer be the case.
During my postal career it was widely assumed that most of senior management leaned Republican. But whatever their party affiliation or policy preferences, it was always clear throughout the Postal Service that any mail related to elections including campaign mail was sacrosanct, treated with care and urgency. Many districts had local offices fill out logs of election mailings in order to ensure they received same day handling regardless of class. Actual election mail, i.e. ballots, were treated with care. There was no excuse to delay this mail, even if there was postage due.
The proper handling of election mail represented the most fundamental function of a national postal network with universal service fulfilling an essential national purpose. More generally, the Postal Service was seen as the property of the American people regardless of political party or persuasion. Whatever else, we were the people’s post office.
How times have changed. From the moment of his election and for the duration of his term, this president has made clear that he is president only for those who agree with him; he welcomes sycophants and excludes everyone else. Moreover, he has shown that he sees the federal government as an extension of him and him alone.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, whatever he may say to the contrary, has made it clear that he works for one man, not the American people. His latest attempts to throw a monkey wrench into the operations of the Postal Service during a pandemic and during what may be the most consequential election this nation has seen are shoddy and pathetic partisanship. He and the Postal Service Board of Governors should be seen for what they are, quislings and lackeys doing the bidding of a president who has disgraced his office and Constitutional order.
At the moment the steps that can be taken to rein in DeJoy are limited. U.S. Senate Minority Leader Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi met with the postmaster general recently and clearly tried to exert some pressure, but how much leverage do they have? Perhaps Congress will insert language in the upcoming stimulus bill holding DeJoy accountable and directing the maintenance of delivery standards with special attention to election mail. The Postal Regulatory Commission could also do more to exercise its responsibilities for oversight but will probably remain on the sidelines.
Make Election Mail Free
So what of the future?
Instead of looking at election mail as another way for the Postal Service to bring in revenue, how about if we recognize the obvious – the USPS is an essential infrastructure designed to serve the American people? Anything that makes elections safer, simpler, and more accessible supports the fundamental right to vote.
So let’s make all election mail free. Some states already pre-pay postage for voters to return their ballots, but most do not, and states must still cover the costs of sending out the ballot applications and ballots. State and local governments, boards of election, and voters should not have to worry about the costs for voting by mail. Supporting free, fair, and accessible elections is a basic duty of government, so let’s fulfill that duty.
Some will ask, what about the cost? Who’s going to pay for election mail? Isn’t the Postal Service already losing billions of dollars? How can we afford to let election mail go for free?
The simple answer to that is that the Postal Service is, as I never tire of repeating, an essential national infrastructure. The value of the Postal Service is not in the revenue it brings in but in all the good it does for the nation. As discussed in this Lawfare article, the Postal Service is essential to national security — responding to natural disasters, deterring mail crimes, and defending against biological attacks. The Postal Service also generates economic opportunity for the whole country by providing a universally accessible and far reaching network that has myriad uses.
Another value of the Postal Service is in the jobs it provides, at its height 800,000 workers, with good benefits. Those jobs have supported economic development in every community in the United States. They have given disabled veterans a chance to be economically independent, and they have allowed people of color and the economically disadvantaged to find a step up into the middle class.
If we can afford billions in so-called Homeland Security and hundreds of billions in defense spending, then we can find a few billion to support a strong universal postal network that returns value and security benefits that far exceed its costs.
We should create a dedicated Election Trust Fund that encourages vote by mail and to support state and local governments in providing free, fair, and accessible elections. Since we don’t want to rely on yearly or periodic appropriations from Congress to maintain the fund (that’s actually what got the old Post Office department in trouble), Congress should seed the fund with enough money to cover the elections through two presidential cycles. Mechanisms to refresh the fund can be devised through support of the states, perhaps related to population with incentives for higher percentages of registered voters and higher voter turnout. Other dedicated funding sources can be identified.
The specifics are less important than the basic idea. Let’s find the political will and the common sense to support the most essential right in our democracy, the right to vote. At the same time, let us support an institution as old as the Republic and just as important and useful today as it has ever been.
Our country will not achieve greatness through angry exclusionary rhetoric that treats our national assets like personal play toys. It will do so only by aspiring towards the promise of our founding documents, by striving towards principles of equality, justice, inclusion, honesty, and the dignity of every American. Supporting a national network that binds the nation together and facilitates the right and duty to vote would be a step towards greatness.
Mark Jamison is a retired postmaster who serves as an advisor, resident guru, and regular contributor to Save the Post Office. His previous posts can be found here. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org