- The ongoing COVID-19 outbreak in the United States has plunged the US Postal Service into dire financial straits.
- It could severely impact the 2020 elections as states pivot to vote by mail.
- Two Democratic lawmakers who oversee the Postal Service warned in late March that the agency “will not survive the summer without immediate help from Congress and the White House.”
- The stimulus package President Trump recently signed into law allows the post office to borrow up to $10 billion from the US Treasury, but did not provide emergency funding or debt relief.
- One election expert told Insider she is confident in the Postal Service’s ability to process more ballots.
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The ongoing COVID-19 outbreak in the United States has plunged the US Postal Service into dire financial straits, as more Americans than ever rely on post offices to deliver necessary medicine and supplies, especially in underserved rural areas.
And as the coronavirus crisis has pushed over a dozen states to postpone their presidential primaries, move to conduct them entirely by mail, or both, the Postal Service’s lack of funding could impact ongoing and upcoming 2020 elections by harming states’ efforts to expand absentee voting and vote-by-mail.
House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney and Rep. Gerry Conolly, who runs the subcommittee that oversees the Postal Service, sounded the alarm that the agency could run out of funding altogether by June if Congress doesn’t act soon.
“Based on a number of briefings and warnings this week about a critical fall-off in mail across the country, it has become clear that the Postal Service will not survive the summer without immediate help from Congress and the White House,” the two said in a March 23 joint statement, calling on Congress to appropriate $25 million in emergency funds to the agency.
The significant decline in Americans using the Postal Service, which operates as a semi-independent government agency that doesn’t run on taxpayer funding, is only exacerbating its financial woes. It is especially burdened by 2006 legislation that required the agency to pre-fund 75 years’ worth of employee pensions in advance. The service saw its annual losses double to $8.8 billion in 2019, and currently has $11 billion in outstanding debt.
In addition to the agency’s chronic lack of funding, postal workers have reported facing hazardous conditions on the job due to the coronavirus crisis with little to no protective equipment.
Postal Services employees have told outlets including Business Insider, the Federal News Network and ProPublica that while they are designated as essential employees and come in contact with hundreds of pieces of mail every day, they lack consistent access to masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves to stay safe on the job.
While the Postal Service maintains they are providing mail carriers with the appropriate protective equipment, two postal workers told Insider’s Ashley Collman that they’ve had to make their own hand sanitizer, purchase their own gloves out-of-pocket, work in unsanitary mail trucks, and encounter people not following proper social distancing protocols while working their routes.
Other workers told ProPublica that they were pressured to continue to work their routes and not take sick days even while experiencing coronavirus symptoms, which the agency disputed. So far, at least 259 postal workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least two have died from complications stemming from the disease, an agency spokesman told Insider.
While the stimulus package signed into law by President Donald Trump includes $400 million in election assistance grants to states, election access advocates argue that amount doesn’t come close to what’s required to ensure every state can run a fair election that gives every voter an opportunity to cast a ballot.
The non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice estimated in a recent report that Congress needs to allocate at least $2 billion to states in order to ensure that states can implement safeguards including online voter registration, expanded no-excuse absentee voting and vote by mail, and enacted measures to make polling places safer.
Tiffany Mueller, the President of the advocacy group Let America Vote, told Insider in a statement that the $2 billion in election assistance funding they and the Brennan Center are calling on Congress to allocate should “include pre-paid postage for all ballots so everyone’s voice can be heard regardless of income,” adding, “if additional funds are necessary to ensure the United States Postal Service can operate, Congress should provide those funds.”
And while the stimulus bill extended the Postal Service greater flexibility to borrow up to $10 billion from the federal government, it didn’t extend USPS any emergency government funding or eliminate its $11 billion in outstanding debt, two of the measures that Maloney and Connolly called for.
“To give it $10 billion of additional credit is, frankly, a meaningless gesture. It’s a slap in the face, and it’s not what they need,” Connolly told the Federal News Network. “They don’t need more debt capacity, they need debt forgiveness.”
Republicans are resisting efforts to expand vote by mail during the coronavirus crisis
In the status quo, 38 states have some form of early voting, 35 allow voters to request an absentee ballot without a documented excuse, and five states (Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Utah, and Hawaii) now conduct all their elections almost entirely by mail.
The stimulus package presented by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives included several provisions that would require states to expand options for voters to safely cast ballots in a health crisis.
The bill would have mandated that states offer 15 days of early voting prior to every election, allow voters to request an absentee ballot without an excuse, and send a mail-in ballot to every voter in an emergency situation where holding in-person elections would be logistically unfeasible or dangerous.
As states have steadily expanded absentee and mail-in voting over the past two decades, the proportion of Americans voting in-person on election day has declined from 90% in 1992 to 60% in 2016, according to the US Census Bureau.
The percentage of Americans who voted absentee or in an all-mail state increased from 12.1% in the 2004 presidential election to 23.6% in the 2016 election, according to the US Election Assistance Commission. In the 2018 midterms, a full 40% of voters used an “alternative” method of voting, either by casting ballots early, absentee, or by mail.
And over the next two months, Wyoming, Alaska, Ohio, Hawaii, Oregon, and Kansas are set to hold their Democratic presidential primaries entirely by mail, too with voters in other states expected to request and send in absentee ballots at higher than normal levels.
But some Republicans have openly protested expanding vote by mail options because they believe it would hurt them politically. Trump said in a recent “Fox & Friends” appearance that the House’s stimulus provisions had “levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, the ranking member of the House Oversight subcommittee that oversees the Postal Service, tweeted that expanding vote by mail “would be the end of our Republic as we know it.” And in Georgia, which is set to hold primaries on May 19, a Republican leader in the state legislature argued that sending every registered voter an absentee ballot would be “extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia.”
The evidence for those lawmakers’ claims that increased voter turnout would automatically benefit Democrats is flimsy at best. Some analysts have argued that the conventional wisdom that non-voters lean Democratic is less relevant than ever in 2020, as white, non-college voters make up a larger share of the non-voter pool.
Still, election access and advocates are slamming those Republicans for openly admitting they want to limit voter participation to benefit their own electoral chances, and are concerned that the health of the postal service could be collateral damage.
“‘In a moment where many Americans must stay at home — depending upon the post offices to deliver supplies, medication, or even social security checks — the idea of letting the Postal Service go underfunded or shut down completely is outrageous,” Ryan Thomas, a spokesperson for the progressive grassroots organization Stand Up America, told Insider. “It’s even more outrageous if the motive is to stop people from voting.”
Already, states that don’t conduct their elections entirely by mail are scrambling to keep up with a deluge in absentee ballot requests.
In Wisconsin, which is proceeding with its presidential primary and several other elections on April 7, the state election commission reportedly received 1.19 million absentee ballot requests by April 3, almost matching the total number of 1.2 million Wisconsinites who voted in the state’s spring 2019 elections.
In a Wednesday hearing in federal court over a number of lawsuits seeking to delay Wisconsin’s primary over coronavirus concerns, the commission’s administrator Meagan Wolfe told Judge William Conley that due to the sheer volume of ballots being requested, it would be possible that over 20,000 voters won’t get their ballots in until after the deadline of 8 p.m. on election day.
While Judge Conley did not formally delay the election, his Thursday ruling extended the deadline for voters to return absentee ballots from April 7 to April 13 and removed the requirement that voters secure a witness signature for their absentee ballots, ordering clerks not to release any results until April 13 on Friday.
A vote by mail expert says the Post Office is a vital tool to “deliver democracy” to Americans
Amber McReynolds, the former director of the Denver Elections Division and CEO of Vote At Home, an organization that advocates for expanding vote by mail, told Insider that when properly funded, the post office is a remarkably effective tool for administering mail-in elections and handles the
McReynolds said that based on her experience administering all-mail elections in Colorado, she has “full confidence” in the Postal Service’s ability to handle a big increase in mail ballots with the proper resources. She said she was “stunned” after seeing the scale and level of organization of the general mail facility in Denver, which processes far more pieces of mail than the number of registered voters in Colorado every day.
“They have the ability with their equipment and everything to run it at a level that must of us would never expect, it’s massive,” McReynolds said. When put into perspective, she said, the number of ballots the Postal Service processes is just a blip on the radar of their total operations.
“The Postal Services estimates they process about 140 billion pieces of mail a year. And when we talk about 250 million mail ballots for say, every American, that’s only about 0.2% of their normal volume,” she said. She added that while post offices deal with the most volume in sending ballots out to voters, the rate at which voters mail their ballots back is staggered over time, making the load more manageable.
“It’s a concern if Congress is not going to appropriate the right amount of support. And it’s not just about balloting, they deliver medicine, they deliver medical supplies, and businesses rely on the post office too,” McReynolds said. “They are a huge part of what has made our country great.”
In a Tuesday appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed strong interest in more funding for election administration and saving the US Postal Service in the next stimulus package.
“I always say that the post office has the ability to deliver democracy,” McReynolds said. “That’s what we need them to do, especially in a pandemic or in an emergency situation. We the voters are going to rely on them.”