To conservatives, the mail has become the Democrats’ new Russia, Russia, Russia. But they’re not thrilled that President Donald Trump is obsessed with it, either.
A fight over the United States Postal Service has become the latest example of a once unglamorous, wonky element of government bureaucracy becoming hyper-polarized in the Trump era. To Democrats and progressives, recently proposed changes to USPS — including slashed overtime and the potential removal of mail-sorting devices — represent a Trump attempt to hamstring and cast doubt on the postal system just before an election that will rely on it. But to Republicans and MAGA world, it’s just another manifestation of liberals’ Trump derangement syndrome.
“A made-for-TV phony political crisis,” proclaimed the often staid editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. “A conspiracy so wicked, so brazen and dangerous, it makes Russiagate look like jaywalking,” inveighed Fox News host Tucker Carlson. “Far-left morons,” declared a headline on the far-right Gateway Pundit, describing the protesters in front of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s house.
This time, however, the fight is not necessarily a rallying cry for conservatives. Longtime conservative postal reform researchers say Trump’s refusal to drop his fact-challenged claims of mail-in voter fraud is actually hurting their cause. And, they add, Trump may even be damaging his standing with voters who rely on the Postal Service, including rural Americans, veterans who get prescriptions by mail and Republicans who vote by mail.
“The president has been a wet hot mess on this issue,” said Kevin Kosar, the vice president of the right-leaning R Street Institute, who has written about postal reform. “It’s created a lot of needless confusion.”
Since the spring, Trump has been incessantly warning without evidence that more mail-in balloting will lead to widespread voter fraud. At one point, Trump suggested he would oppose an additional $25 billion in funds for the post office in order to curtail mail-in ballots — “for something that’ll turn out to be fraudulent, that’s election money basically,” he told Fox News last week — before later softening his position.
Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee have backed up Trump’s assault on mail-in voting, fighting rules to expand remote balloting in numerous states, including Nevada and New Jersey, two places that have opted to send mail-in ballots to all eligible voters.
These efforts have obscured the more nuanced reasons USPS is in need of more money during a pandemic that has upended daily life, according to experts. During the last few months, more Americans have become reliant on mailed packages — which cost more to process — while sending less first-class paper mail, traditionally the bulk of USPS revenue. Back in May, agency officials predicted USPS would lose 50 percent of its first-class mail during the pandemic, prompting officials to ask Congress for a $25 billion cash infusion.
Thus, the idea that boosting USPS funding is part of some “terrible plot that he needs to stop,” as Kosar put it, is incorrect. “[T]he Postal Service would have no role in that plot per se. Because the Postal Service doesn’t get to choose if it carries ballots or not. Elections administrators have to choose that.”
Several Postal Service experts, including ones from conservative-leaning think tanks, agreed that despite some structural issues, the post office can handle vast volumes of paper mail-in ballots, even with the current budgetary shortfall.
“The problem is that it takes quite a long, long lead time for the election officials in the states and counties and cities to” organize mail-in balloting, said Stephen Kearny, executive director of the nonpartisan Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers and a former USPS senior vice president. “I don’t think the risk to the November election is the postal side, I think it’s more on the people running elections.”
Paul Steidler, senior fellow at the right-leaning Lexington Institute, noted that even if 100 million people voted by mail — a three-fold increase from 2016 — that would only account for roughly 2 percent of the Postal Service’s mail volume.
“So it’s not like that’s something new to the system,” he said.
Conservatives and Trump allies have made similar arguments. They point out that USPS was sending out warnings about mail-in voting delays before DeJoy’s appointment, and that DeJoy was unanimously approved by the USPS’s bipartisan board of governors. On Tuesday, DeJoy said that he would halt all proposed changes until after the election to avoid “even the appearance of any impact on election mail.” Republicans have used these points as seeds to accuse Democrats of spinning up fabrications about the mail system that undermine faith in the upcoming election.
“Democrats have no shame. They are pushing conspiracy theories about the USPS to undermine faith in the election and distract from their own failures,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently tweeted. “Whether Americans choose to vote in-person or vote absentee, I have full confidence in the integrity of our electoral process.”
Yet Trump has also spun up his own share of overstated and evidence-deficient theories about the postal system. The president’s fixation with USPS dates back to at least 2017, when he called the institution a “loser” and falsely claimed that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016 because of fraudulent mail-in voting.
In 2018, Trump demanded that then-Postmaster General Megan Brennan double mailing rates on Amazon, a company run by his nemesis Jeff Bezos. After Brennan declined to take such a step, citing a preexisting contract with the internet giant that would need a regulatory committee ruling to undo, Trump falsely claimed USPS budgetary shortfalls were due to the agency undercharging Amazon.
Kosar warned that Trump’s theories could actually scare potential Republican voters from sending in mail-in ballots — a self-defeating move, considering absentee voters may have helped Trump pull off his 2016 victory, according to The Washington Post.
“It’s freaking out members of the public,” he said. “You may have lower GOP turnout.”
Already, those numbers may be bearing out. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll published this week revealed that only 11 percent of Trump supporters planned to vote by mail, compared to 47 percent of Biden voters, while 66 percent of Trump supporters said they would vote in person. Republicans are also more likely to distrust the results of mail-in balloting — only 23 percent of those polled said that they believed that mail-in ballots would be properly counted.
And in important swing states like Florida, Democrats are registering to vote in greater numbers than Republicans, giving Trump’s 2020 rival, Joe Biden, a potential edge. Separately, a recent Niskanen Center/JMC Analytics poll of rural Pennsylvania swing counties found that 57 percent of voters, including 43 percent of Republican voters, were less likely to vote for a candidate who would defund or privatize the USPS.
In nearly two decades of studying the Postal Service, added Kosar, he had never seen a Republican lawmaker in favor of defunding or privatizing the Postal Service — a cross-continental service with a profit-adverse obligation to get mail to every American, no matter how far-flung they may be.
“I can’t remember even a draft bill by a backbencher to privatize the Postal Service,” he said. “I think the reason is, is because every member of Congress has postal workers in their districts and states. And they would just be throwing votes away.”
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