Postal Service, beset by funding woes, faces new fight over mail-in voting

Postal Service, beset by funding woes, faces new fight over mail-in voting
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Advocates and experts fear the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) could find itself caught in the crosshairs of the emerging partisan fight over mail-in voting.

Democrats are pressing for increased funding for by-mail ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic, citing concerns about voters and workers congregating at polling stations.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTwitter CEO: 'Not true' that removing Trump campaign video was illegal, as president has claimed Biden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination Barr says he didn't give 'tactical' command to clear Lafayette protesters MORE, meanwhile, threatened last month to block emergency COVID-19 assistance for the Postal Service if it did not raise its prices to cover a growing hole in its budget that could see the agency run out of money by end of the fiscal year. Trump reversed course late last week, vowing to “never let our Post Office fail.”

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His earlier remarks, however, raised alarm among state and federal officials and voting rights advocates, who see those warnings to the Postal Service as implicitly linked to the 2020 elections. Should the agency turn to layoffs or service reductions to cut costs, they argue, mail-in voting could be disrupted and millions of voters could be disenfranchised.

“This is not and should not be a partisan or political issue. Both blue states and red states rely on the Postal Service to deliver ballots to and from voters,” Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat, told reporters on a conference call on Wednesday.

“We shouldn’t be playing politics with the postal service because it will disenfranchise and suppress voters.”

Democratic officials in private conversations and email exchanges have contemplated the impact a defunct Postal Service could have on mail-in voting.

The pandemic has brought the issue to the forefront, raising concerns about the risks posed by in-person voting and forcing more than a dozen states to delay their scheduled primary elections. This week, New York became the first state to cancel its presidential nominating contest outright.

“The result will be massive disenfranchisement of voters at the least and, equally dangerous, will force hundreds of thousands to vote in-person on [Election Day] during a pandemic,” Liane Groth Hulka, who serves as the 5th District congressional chairwoman for the Indiana Democratic Party, said in a recent email exchange with party officials obtained by The Hill.

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“Why do you think Trump is trying to starve the USPS?” she asked. “He has November's election in mind.”

In Indiana, which holds its presidential primary on June 2, voters are required to return their ballots to their local elections office by noon.

“That means, with current stresses on the USPS and serious delays in mail, ballots might have to be mailed up to a week before June 2nd in most areas to be counted,” Groth Hulka wrote.

Groth Hulka reiterated her concerns in a phone call with The Hill on Thursday, saying that refusing to provide emergency relief to the Postal Service would effectively suppress the vote.

“It is vital to our democracy and our ability to cast our ballots,” she said. “And I think the Republicans have figured that out and would like to continue to chip away at it.”

The risk an insolvent Postal Service poses to mail-in voting is twofold. Not only could it complicate the process of returning an already completed ballot, but it could slow the process of distributing absentee ballots to begin with.

Washington’s Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman said on Wednesday that if anything were to happen to the agency, “it would be disastrous” for mail-in voting.

Wyman said that beyond the threat posed by reduced mail service in some parts of the country and delayed delivery times, many voters who use Post Office boxes to receive mail could run into trouble if the Postal Service goes under.

“When I look at our voter rolls and those 4.5 million people who are on our voter rolls here in Washington state, a very large swath of them … have Post Office boxes,” she said.

“Even if we could move to some alternative delivery system like UPS or FedEX or DHL, there are a large swath of voters that I could not reach with any delivery because they receive their ballots in a Post Office box.”

Washington is one of five states that conduct elections almost entirely by mail, along with Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Utah. But calls to expand vote-by-mail programs nationwide have exploded in recent weeks.

For vote-by-mail advocates, Wisconsin’s presidential primary and local elections on April 7 have emerged as something of a cautionary tale. The state moved forward with in-person voting after state Republican leaders rebuffed an effort by Gov. Tony Evers (D) to postpone the elections, resulting in long lines at some polling places that flew in the face of social distancing guidelines.

So far, more than 50 people who said that they voted in-person or worked the polls during the elections have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiNRCC turns up heat on vulnerable Democrats over Omar's call to abolish police Shocking job numbers raise hopes for quicker recovery Engel primary challenger hits million in donations MORE (D-Calif.) said in an interview with MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhl on Monday that she plans to include a provision in an upcoming coronavirus relief bill “supporting vote-by-mail in a very important way.”

But experts and Postal Service advocates said that any legislation expanding mail-in voting programs would likely need to include funding for the USPS, which warned lawmakers last month that it could run out of money by September if Congress doesn’t act.

“If the Post Office is not there to deliver, we won’t have an election or any kind of fair election,” Mark Dimondstein, the president of the American Postal Workers Union, told reporters on a conference call on Wednesday. “And so if the Post Office in its dire straits is not helped out by Congress, then it’s going to directly affect, not only this election coming, but all the elections moving forward."

The Postal Service’s financial condition has been deteriorating for years amid an overall decline in mail volume. A report from the Government Accountability Office released last year showed that the agency had $143 billion in unfunded liabilities and debt at the end of the 2018 fiscal year.

But the pandemic has exacerbated the USPS's money woes, with mail volume falling by more than 30 percent from last year, prompting the agency to ask Congress for help. 

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On Thursday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers called on congressional leadership to take steps to ensure the USPS doesn't run out of money.

Polls show widespread support for both the Postal Service and mail-in voting. A Gallup poll released last year showed the USPS as the top-rated federal agency, with 74 percent of those surveys saying that it is doing either an “excellent” or “good” job. Previous Gallup data — from 2014, 2017 and 2018 — similarly showed the Postal Service in the No. 1 spot.

And just this week, a new survey from the Pew Research Center released found that 70 percent of respondents favor allowing anyone who wants to vote by mail to do so, including 44 percent who strongly support such a policy.

But the debate over vote-by-mail and the Postal Service has taken on a more partisan tint in recent weeks as Trump has urged Republicans to “fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting,” claiming that expanding vote-by-mail programs increases the risk of voter fraud and hands an unfair structural advantage to Democrats.

Elections experts have widely rebutted Trump’s claims, pointing out that voter fraud in any form is exceedingly rare and noting that there is little evidence, if any, that mail-in voting benefits one party over the other.

At the same time, Trump has been sharply critical of the Postal Service, calling the agency a “joke” and demanding that it significantly hike its rates as a condition for receiving a $10 billion loan included in the $2 trillion coronavirus relief act passed in March.

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Trump’s criticism of the Postal Service is nothing new. He’s sought for years to reform the agency and has accused e-commerce giants of taking advantage of its low pricing. In particular, he’s singled out Amazon, the online retailer owned by Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosWhy military leaders reacted so strongly to Trump's use of troops On The Money: Initial jobless claims drop to 1.9 million | IRS faces obstacles with remaining stimulus checks | Nearly half of Americans have lost income over coronavirus Hillicon Valley: Facebook begins labeling posts from state-controlled media | Chinese and Iranian hackers target Biden, Trump campaigns | Twitter CEO gives M to Kaepernick group MORE, with whom Trump has long feuded. 

Dimondstein rebuked Trump’s criticism on Wednesday, arguing that allowing the Post Office to fail would amount to the most “devastating” act of voter suppression “since the 1965 Civil Rights Act” was put in place.

“It’s bipartisan. The support is there,” Dimondstein said of the efforts to provide financial relief to the Postal Service. “At this point, one person has a bone to pick and I think that is too bad. I’m sorry that he does. But this is bigger than him. This is our democracy and we need to defend that democracy.”