A U.S. Postal Service worker makes a delivery with gloves and a mask in Warren, Michigan. Because of a financial shortfall at the agency caused by COVID-19, there may be delays in delivering mail-in ballots in November. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

This article was produced by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

An unprecedented shift in American democracy is underway, as more states and counties turn to voting by mail. But as jurisdictions prepare for a pandemic-riddled presidential election, the threat of a financial crisis at the U.S. Postal Service looms over that alternative to in-person voting.

If Congress does not pass a $75 billion bailout, the Postal Service says uninterrupted mail service may not last past September. That’s when local election officials plan to send out mail-in absentee ballots, letters with polling place information, voting booklets, new voter cards and federally mandated voter registration confirmation postcards.

Because so much U.S. election infrastructure relies on mail, some state officials of both parties are sounding the alarm about the prospect of a financial crisis at the Postal Service.

“I can’t understate how disastrous this would be to our democracy and our economy,” said Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat. “Mid-election year is not the time to risk the dependability of the Postal Service.”

State and local officials depend on the agency to run smooth elections, they say.

A financial crisis at the Postal Service could threaten the success of November’s election, said Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, especially since many states and counties have limited experience with voting by mail. Washington is one of five states that vote entirely by mail.

“The ramp up is going to be logistically difficult enough without having the uncertainty of whether or not a state can actually mail a ballot to a voter and have it returned to them,” said Wyman, a Republican.

Even before the outbreak, the Postal Service struggled with multibillion-dollar debts with the rise of the internet and competitive private mailing services such as FedEx and UPS. Congress has not funded the Postal Service since 1970. Instead, it relies on revenue from selling stamps and packaging.

A crush of online shopping during the coronavirus crisis has not been enough to save the agency, however. Business mailings, such as catalogs and real estate ads, plummeted because of the economic downturn created by COVID-19. The agency is projected to lose $13 billion in this fiscal year — about a third of its revenue.

A federal bailout may be a longshot. Last month President Donald Trump called the agency a joke. He also blocked congressional efforts to infuse the Postal Service with needed cash, instead hinting he would consider only loans.

He has said the Postal Service should charge more to Amazon (whose owner, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post) and other major retailers. The administration has yet to approve a $10 billion loan to the agency that was included in the March stimulus package.

This week, Amazon and other retailers launched a $2 million ad campaign to convince Republican lawmakers to oppose Trump’s proposal.

Meanwhile the president this week installed new leadership at the Postal Service, tapping one of his top donors, Louis DeJoy, as postmaster general.

Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, expressed concern with Trump’s pick, tweeting Wednesday that it was hard not to be cynical about the motivations of his appointment.

The USPS is a public good,” she wrote. “So many jobs especially for people of color and delivery of essential items depend on it. And our democracy (vote by mail, the census) amid COVID-19 depends on it.”

Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, which represents 200,000 postal workers and has lobbied Congress this spring over the dispute, said relieving the financial need should be nonpartisan, ensuring Americans receive vital mail, from stimulus checks to pharmaceuticals to absentee ballots.

“If the post office is not there to deliver, we won’t have an election or any kind of fair election,” he said.

This fall, the financial shortfall could have a similar impact on mail service that hurricanes and tornadoes have had in previous elections, such as delays in delivery and strains on postal workers, said Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser for the elections program at the bipartisan Democracy Fund. Even so, Patrick emphasized the Postal Service deems mail-in ballots and other election-related mail essential.

“There might be some slight delays that might impact election mail,” she said, “but it’s not going to stop it.”

There are several ways, Patrick said, to prepare for this situation: Voters should request their mail-in absentee ballots early and send them in as quickly as possible; local election officials should use existing best practices to design envelopes that are both easily sortable by mail carriers and trackable by voters; and state legislators should shape election laws that extend early voting periods to account for delays.

In Palm Beach County, Florida, voters can track their ballots through the county website by using barcodes. Wendy Sartory Link, the county’s supervisor of elections, said she bought an additional mail sorter to meet demand, as well. These steps, she said, allow voters to trust their mail-in ballot will be counted.

Despite the uncertainty around the Postal Service, many local election officials remain confident in their relationships with the agency, which often involves coordination between election officials and local postmasters when there are widespread election mailings.

A strong partnership with the Postal Service has been crucial for local elections, said Jim Irizarry, an assistant county clerk for San Mateo County, California, where officials run elections entirely by mail. While the agency’s financial problems are troubling, he said, he has confidence.

“It is so fundamental to our democracy, to our nation and our local government,” Irizarry said. “I believe they will take that responsibility seriously moving forward.”

Counties have had to adapt to changes in the Postal Service before. When, in recent years, the agency shifted its delivery model in Nebraska, Lancaster County Election Commissioner Dave Shively had to account for mailing delays. He and his voters could no longer depend on next-day deliveries after mail began rerouting through Omaha.

“Too many people depend on the Postal Service,” said Shively, whose county includes the state capital of Lincoln. “If there are changes, we’ll just have to learn to adapt to that as we go.”

That will be critical for November — if the primary season is any indication. In preparation for the state’s May 12 contest, Shively for the first time sent every voter forms to request mail-in ballots. With 193,000 registered voters, he has received 80,500 mail-in ballot requests, which he said is an enthusiastic response. The state is still holding in-person voting, as well.

The potential crisis at the Postal Service shows why election officials should protect in-person voting options ahead of November, said Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program. Voters with limited accessibility or already unreliable mail service depend on polling locations to cast their ballot, she said.

“In a time of crisis, voters need more options, not fewer,” she said.

In San Mateo County, California, Irizarry said if there were delays in mail service, the county is well positioned to run a smooth election through its existing ballot drop boxes and vote centers that offer both paper ballots and machines with a paper trail.

Voting rights advocates such as Democracy Initiative Executive Director Wendy Fields say that it could be a form of voter suppression for Congress not to bail out the Postal Service. It’s simply not an option to let the agency fail, she said, especially during an election year hit by a pandemic.

“This is not a moment for change,” she said. “This is a moment for investing.”

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