The United States Postal Service has unexpectedly emerged as a central figure in the 2020 election as President Donald Trump steps up attacks on the agency as part of his crusade against voting by mail in November amid the coronavirus pandemic — including saying he won’t fund it in order to hinder its ability to deliver mail-in ballots.
If you’re confused about why the USPS is involved at all and what any of it has to do with voter suppression, you first need to know a little bit about what the agency, which reported $69 billion in net losses from 2007 to 2018, is dealing with.
How did we get here?
The USPS is essentially waging a war on a three-headed beast: its longstanding financial woes, limited resources stretched even thinner during the pandemic, and the Trump administration’s threat to dismantle the agency and privatize it.
The Postal Service’s biggest money problems stem from the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA), which New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell called “one of the worst pieces of legislation Congress has passed in a generation.” The PAEA required that the USPS set up a $72-billion fund for future USPS retirees’ healthcare benefits 75 years into the future, and it had to put in $5.5 billion into the fund every year. The agency, which receives no regular taxpayer money and operates on sales from postage, products, and services, defaulted on that annual payment by 2012.
Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, told BuzzFeed News that the PAEA “forced the Post Office to do something that nobody else has to do, public or private.”
“It was an absurd mandate to fund healthcare retiree benefits for people who not only weren’t in the Post Office yet, but in some cases weren’t even born yet,” he said. “And it drained tons of money out of the Postal Service.”
Early this year, Congress was on its way to ending the agency’s payments to the fund, with the House passing the bipartisan USPS Fairness Act in February.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, exacerbating the agency’s financial distress and leaving the bill on the backburner. Though the USPS saw a significant increase in demand for home deliveries at the start of the pandemic, that demand further strained an overburdened and understaffed system, and did little to ease its financial woes.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have mostly agreed that the USPS will need financial assistance from the government if it’s going to continue operating at all. Discussions about the next round of coronavirus relief funding — which Democrats have asked to include $25 billion in emergency funds for the agency, or $3.5 billion more for election resources — have stalled.
The president — who has falsely claimed that mail-in ballots lead to voter fraud even though he himself has repeatedly cast absentee ballots in Florida — said this week that he did not want to give the Postal Service money because it would then be able to deliver mail-in ballots to voters across the country. (He later backtracked.)
Who is running the USPS?
Which brings us to Louis DeJoy, a business executive and top Trump donor who was appointed postmaster general and CEO of the USPS in early May, much to the alarm of Democrats and ethics watchdogs.
DeJoy came into the USPS with little related experience and a lot of red flags. In 2014, his company, New Breed Logistics, was bought by transportation and logistics company XPO Logistics, a USPS contractor. DeJoy sat on XPO’s board and still held a large equity stake in the company when he became postmaster general, CNN reported, raising a potential conflict of interest.
He also owned between $100,000 and $250,000 in Amazon stock when he was appointed to the USPS. Though he divested those shares in June, DeJoy also bought between $50,000 and $100,000 in stock options for Amazon, CNN reported, raising questions about why he would be investing in a competitor to an agency he leads (Amazon has its own delivery network that carries non-Amazon packages, as well as its own). Sen. Elizabeth Warren has called for an investigation into DeJoy’s purchase of Amazon stock options.
Trump has repeatedly criticized the USPS's partnership with Amazon, blasting the agency for charging Amazon below market rates.
“Why is the United States Post Office, which is losing many billions of dollars a year, while charging Amazon and others so little to deliver their packages, making Amazon richer and the Post Office dumber and poorer?" Trump tweeted in December 2017.
A few months later, in April 2018, Trump tweeted, “Amazon costing the United States Post Office massive amounts of money for being their Delivery Boy.
DeJoy has raised millions for Republicans and held fundraisers for Trump and the RNC. In 2019, he was named the finance chair for the 2020 Republican National Convention, a job that involved leading fundraising for the planned convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. The convention has since been largely moved out of the state because of the coronavirus and Trump’s feud with North Carolina’s Democrat governor.
DeJoy has already made broad changes to the Postal Service in the few months that he has served as postmaster general, shuffling leadership around and instituting large cost-cutting measures, including prohibiting employees from working overtime, telling them to leave mail behind if it slows down their route, and removing mailboxes around the country. The USPS, under pressure, reportedly said Friday night that it would suspend the removal of mailboxes.
DeJoy’s appointment to the USPS has led to concern that the Trump administration is attempting to further exert control over the independent agency. Dimondstein said the union is concerned that DeJoy’s appointment was intended to undermine the Postal Service “to pave the way for a privatization agenda.”
What is Trump doing exactly?
Trump has spent the past year attacking the Postal Service — especially in connection with Amazon (Trump’s feud with Amazon is tied up with the fact that Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, also owns the Washington Post). He’s spent recent months falsely claiming that an increase in mail-in voting would enable voter fraud and would taint the results of the presidential election, as the country has shifted toward voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.
“2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA,” Trump tweeted in late July.
The president told Fox Business Network on Thursday that a new coronavirus relief package was being stalled over the inclusion of billions of dollars to help post offices sort an increased amount of mail-in ballots.
“They need that money in order to have the Post Office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump said on Mornings with Maria. “If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.”
On Friday, Trump said he would be willing to agree to the $25 billion in funding for the USPS in a new coronavirus relief package if Democrats “give us what we want.” The coronavirus negotiations, though, are currently stalled at best, with the Senate leaving DC for the rest of the month.
Voting advocates have said the recent changes to operations that are crippling the Postal Service in the lead up to the election are just another example of voter suppression.
During his remarks at Rep. John Lewis’s funeral in Atlanta, former president Barack Obama took thinly veiled shots at the Trump administration’s Postal Service changes.
"Even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting," Obama said while delivering Lewis’s eulogy, "by closing polling locations, by targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that's going to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don’t get sick."
Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden told reporters that the president’s unwillingness to approve funding for the USPS was “pure Trump.”
“He doesn’t want an election,” he added.
Biden’s campaign released a statement Thursday accusing the Trump administration of “sabotaging” a basic service because “he wants to deprive Americans of their fundamental right to vote safely during the most catastrophic public health crisis in over 100 years.”
NAACP President Derrick Johnson told BuzzFeed News that “this is the most blatant attempt to suppress voters in modern history at least since the voter suppression tactics of the 1960s.”
Johnson added that the administration is “forcing people to put their lives and their health at risk to vote.”
What does this mean for the election?
USPS officials have started warning 46 states that their voters could be disenfranchised by slower delivery times if they don’t alter their rules and deadlines for absentee ballots, as first reported by the Washington Post. Deadlines for requesting and returning ballots vary widely for each state, which could lead to ballots not being received or counted in time.
“The Postal Service is asking election officials and voters to realistically consider how the mail works,” a spokesperson for the USPS told the Washington Post.
The USPS did not give additional comment to BuzzFeed News Friday night.
And mail sorting machines that could be used to sort ballots are being deactivated, Vice News reported this week.
The results of slower postal services could lead to voters not receiving their ballots in time or their ballots arriving back after election results have been tallied. It also may mean that the election results themselves take a significant length of time to be finalized.
Trump has pointed to the slow-moving results of New York’s 12th Congressional District primary election as evidence that mail-in voting systems are flawed. “You won’t know the election result for weeks, months, maybe years after,” Trump told reporters in July.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who represents the 12th Congressional District, recently told BuzzFeed News that Trump “needs to stop talking about my race and fix the Post Office.”
What’s being done?
In Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other congressional Democrats wrote a letter to DeJoy voicing their concerns about the changes to Postal Service operations. “If implemented now, as the election approaches, this policy will cause further delays to election mail that will disenfranchise voters and put significant financial pressure on election jurisdictions,” they said.
On Wednesday, Maloney introduced a bill to roll back changes that had been introduced at post offices.
“Our Postal Service should not become an instrument of partisan politics, but instead must be protected as a neutral, independent entity that focuses on one thing and one thing only—delivering the mail. Millions of people rely on the Postal Service every day to communicate, to access critical medications, and to vote,” Maloney said in a statement.
There could be other moves coming, too. Rep. Pascrell tweeted Friday night that he was seeking legal action.