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Signs of the Times  •  18 August 2020 •  No. 204

Special issue on

(Additional documentary material is posted at the end of this article.)

Who would have thought that Mr. McFeely, the lovable deliveryman and avatar for our nation’s postal carriers on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” could be the flash point of a fierce struggle for the preservation of democratic institutions in the US.

Of course, Mr. McFeely worked for “Speedy Delivery,”  and because of copyright laws couldn’t sport a United States Postal Service (USPS) logo.

Time was, "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." Now, with the pandemic making life dangerous in long lines at polling places, the USPS has become the center of a big time partisan spat. Our president and many of his minions vote by mail but do not want hoards of citizens doing the same.

The Postal Service, far and away our most popular governmental agency, is neither a private business nor a government-owned corporation. After that, its status is complicated, being “independent” but not “private.” Its immediate oversight is in the hands of a Board of Governors that sets budgets and policies. It operates off its own income as “an independent establishment of the executive branch of the Government of the United States.”

But the USPS is now bowed under financial burdens. Its business model took a financial hit with the advent of electronic communication mechanisms beginning in the ‘90s, replacing a large volume of first class mail; then another with the Great Recession of 2007-2009; and yet again, with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bunker buster came in 2006, when Congress approved a bizarre piece of legislation, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which effectively required the USPS to pre-fund employees’ pension and health benefits decades into the future. (See Jeff Spross, “ How George Bush broke the Post Office,” The Hill)

The weeds get tall when you attempt to sort out all the details, including convoluted accounting arguments. Keep in mind that a bunch of men (and increasingly, women) in expensive suits have long wanted to privatize the post office, which is consistent with the dominant character of modern plantation capitalism: privileging private wealth over the constitutionally mandated “common welfare.”

Left: Ochopee (Florida) Post Office, the smallest in the US, photo by David Lee Thompson

The USPS’s own general postmaster, Louis DeJoy—a major donor to Trump’s campaign, appointed in May, who owns tens of millions of stock in some of the USPS’ competitors—has already mandated the removal of 671 high-speed mail sorting machines from post offices around the country, eliminating the ability to process 21.4 million items per hour.

Just this past week the Postal Service sent a letter “to 46 states and D.C. warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted.” (Erin Cox, Elise Viebeck, Jacob Bogage & Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post)

Also this past week, DeJoy fired or reassigned two dozen top USPS officials, consolidating power in his office. (See Market Watch)

On top of all this, the Republican Party just announced it has budgeted $20 million to blanket the courts with lawsuits opposing absentee balloting. (See Ian Millhiser, Vox)

I can’t imagine what Mr. McFeely would say about these developments. But I think it’s important to keep five things in mind.

—continue reading “The US Postal Service and the struggle for democracy

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The challenge we face

¶ “When somebody is the President of the United States, the authority is total. . . . I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about.” (President Donald Trump, reported in Ted Koppel, “Rewriting the limits of presidential powers,” CBS Sunday Morning, 10-minute video with accompanying text. Thanks Abigail.)

¶ “The great lesson of American history is that giving equal freedom to un-equals always ends badly for all concerned. Equality before the law works only among people who possess comparable intelligence and character. . . .  Widespread belief in [Thomas] Jefferson’s false and foolish mantra that ‘all men are created equal’ is now wrecking American society. . . .” —letter to the editor, Asheville Citizen Times, 10 August 2020

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The Postal Service’s role in public life

¶ “In forming the Post Office, the Founding Fathers had wanted a service that would bind together the scattered populous of the new United States. . . . Over the course of two centuries, the agency would drive the expansion of roads and transit, strengthen the nation’s connections with its rural communities, and brave all conditions to bring packages to citizens’ front doors.” Boyce Upholt, National Geographic

¶ “The post office was the midwife of America’s democracy, and the first triumph of its federal state.

        “By facilitating communication between every far-flung, culturally disparate settlement within the early republic, the agency formed the material basis for a national consciousness. By subsidizing the dissemination of newspapers, the post office enabled mass civic engagement and the formation of modern political parties. In the early 19th century, the institution embodied America’s most egalitarian impulses and ambitious conceptions of the role of government. —Eric Levitz, “Americans Must Defend the Postal Service Like Our Democracy Depends on It,” New York Magazine

Right: Protestors outside Postmaster General Louis DeJoy's home. Photo by Eric Lee, Bloomberg

¶ “A key part of the post office’s ethos has long been that it has a ‘universal service obligation,’ binding the nation together’ and ‘facilitating citizen inclusion. . . .’

        “[M]ost Americans . . . believe that there are some things that should be universally available, even if providing those things isn’t profitable, because they’re important components of full citizenship.” Paul Krugman, New York Times

¶ Only the Postal Service is required to “go the last mile,” i.e., to provide service in rural areas.

        “Its private rivals—FedEx, UPS, Amazon, etc.—are under no such obligation. If you live out in the rural hinterlands, and providing you service isn't profitable, those companies simply don't run delivery routes out to you. . . . The idea being that, if the Postal Service's legal mission requires it to do things private firms wouldn't do, it should also have some built-in market advantages to make up for that handicap.” —Jeff Spross, “The U.S. Postal Service should not be a business,” The Week

The postal service delivers to 160 million addresses in the US, handles 48% of the world’s mail (including military and diplomatic personnel around the globe). —For more see “Postal Facts

¶ The Postal Service took a huge hit with the advent of electronic communication. But its principal burden is a 2006 law passed by Congress requiring the agency to pay decades in advance for future employee retirement benefits (including for future employees not yet born), something which no other public service or private business is required to do. —For more see Jake Bittle, “‘Disastrous at a time like this': the US Postal Service is on the brink of crisis,” Guardian

¶ For more background see “A Brief History Of Political Interference In The U.S. Postal Service,” Christianna Silva, NPR.


Debunking the Voter Fraud Myth

¶ “Debunking the Voter Fraud Myth” documents the fact that more people in the US are struck by lightning than commit voter fraud, and cites nearly three dozen other studies and court verdicts that conclude the same. For instance,

        The Brennan Center for Justice “reviewed elections that had been meticulously studied for voter fraud, and found incident rates between 0.0003% and 0.0025%. . . . An exhaustive investigative journalism analysis of all known voter fraud cases [out of billions of votes cast] identified only 491 cases of absentee ballot fraud from 2000 to 2012.”

Left: Despite the Wisconsin governor’s stay-at-home order due to the pandemic, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature refused to postpone the April election. The city of Milwaukee normally has 180 polling sites; but, because of a shortage of people willing to work the polling stations, only five were open, causing long wait time for voters. Photo by Patricia McKnight/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

0.00006% – national fraud rate for mail-in ballots over the past 20 years

  17 million – minimum number of names purged from voting rolls from 2016-2018

  21 million – number of US citizens without government-issued photo identification —Sojourners, Sept/Oct 2020

Documented cases of voter fraud, including absentee ballots, are infinitesimal in proportion to the number of votes case. The special commission President set up after he alleged the 2016 election was marred by “three to five million” illegal ballots eventually disbanded after finding nothing to report. Marina Villenneuve, Associate Press

¶ “The Trump campaign and Republican National Committee sued Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and local election boards on June 29 over their plan for mail-in balloting for the November 3 elections. Trump’s team claimed the plan provides fraudsters an easy opportunity to engage in ballot harvesting, manipulate or destroy ballots, manufacture duplicitous votes, and sow chaos.’

        U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan in Pittsburgh, a Trump appointee, gave the president’s campaign one day to turn over evidence to support its claims of widespread mail-in voting fraud or admit that it doesn’t exist.” Bob Van Voris, MSN

The president’s not afraid of fraud; he’s afraid of losing. “President Donald Trump frankly acknowledged Thursday [in a Fox Business News phone interview] that he’s starving the U.S. Postal Service of money in order to make it harder to process an expected surge of mail-in ballots, which he worries could cost him the election.

        “‘If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money,” Trump told host Maria Bartiromo. “That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting; they just can’t have it.’” Snopes

¶ Trump is “sabotaging an election in broad daylight (and admitting it on camera). . . .”
— former FBI agent Asha Rangappa.  Quoted in John Nichol, The Nation

Right: Cartoon by Gary Anderson.

¶ CNN quoted an unnamed senior Trump campaign official who said “the game plan is to fight [new mail-in voting laws] at every turn,” and reported that the Republican National Committee plans to devote as much as $20 million to contest “voting laws and policies that they view as unconstitutional and potentially damaging to the President’s prospects of winning.” —Aaron Rupar, “How Trump’s mail voting sabotage could result in an election night nightmare,” Vox


Manipulating the Postal Service

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who owns tens of millions of dollars in Postal Service competitors, a Trump appointee and major donor, who served in 2017 on the Republican National Committee’s finance team] “took charge in June, has imposed service cuts, personnel changes, an overtime ban, a hiring freeze, schedule shifts, and routing changes that American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dimondstein says have already slowed down and ‘degraded’ mail delivery.’” John Nichol, The Nation

¶ “The Postal Service is in the process of removing 671 high-speed mail-sorting machines nationwide this month, a process that will eliminate 21.4 million items per hour’s worth of processing capability from the agency’s inventory. This process that will eliminate 21.4 million items per hour’s worth of processing capability from the agency’s inventory.”

 ¶ “Anticipating an avalanche of absentee ballots, the U.S. Postal Service recently sent detailed letters to 46 states and D.C. warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted.” Erin Cox, Elise Viebeck, Jacob Bogage & Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post

¶ “Republicans should fight very hard [against] state wide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.” —President Trump, 8 April 2020 tweet

¶ “What we've never seen before is a president say, 'I'm going to try to actively kneecap the Postal Service to [discourage] voting and I will be explicit about the reason I'm doing it.” —former President Barack Obama, in a podcast interview with David Plouffe, criticizing President Trump’s opposition to absentee voting and stalling efforts to adequately fund the US Postal System to accommodate national elections during the pandemic, in Dan Merica, CNN

¶ “The only way we can lose . . . is if cheating goes on.” —President Trump, at a 14 August rally in Pennsylvania, in David Smith & Sabrina Siddiqui, Guardian

News you can use

¶ States, not the federal government, stipulate the details of how elections are held. So, in terms of absentee or early balloting, check with your city/county board of elections to find out what your options are.

¶ Or go to “Plan Your Vote.” A state-by-state map with absentee and early in-person voting information. NBC News (Thanks Deborah.)

¶ By all means, check to make sure you are registered to vote at your current address. Go to USAGov. Click the “Confirm Your Voter Registration” button. Then “How to Check Your Voter Registration Information.” Then “Can I Vote.” Then “Registration Status.” Then “Select Your State.” Finally, fill in the relevant information and hit “search.”

Breaking News: Just before posting this issue of Signs of the Times, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy issued a statement staying the USPS would delay “cost-cutting” measures until after the November election. Emily Cochrane, Alan Rappeport & Hailey Fuchs, New York Times


Be prepared

“This summer, a bipartisan group of former government officials, political professionals, lawyers and journalists held a series of war game exercises about how the 2020 election might go wrong. Convened by the law professor Rosa Brooks and the historian Nils Gilman, it was called the Transition Integrity Project, and the results were alarming.

        “‘We assess with a high degree of likelihood that November’s elections will be marked by a chaotic legal and political landscape,’ said a resulting report. President Trump, it said, ‘is likely to contest the result by both legal and extralegal means.’” —Michelle Goldberg, “Trump Might Cheat. Activists Are Getting Ready,” New York Times

Right: Cartoon by Steve Breen.

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