All the plans we have for a safe and legitimate general election in November depend heavily upon the ability to expand vote by mail. Yet those plans would be completely upended if the United States Postal Service collapses, a ridiculous but real possibility thanks to COVID-19 and President Donald Trump’s opposition to a postal service bailout as part of the federal government’s pandemic response. In every election but especially this year, the USPS is critical government infrastructure for our elections. With poll workers getting sick, in-person polling places shutting down, and an expected flood of absentee ballot requests, a functioning postal service is essential to the health and safety of American democracy. We cannot let USPS collapse.
Democrats and Republicans are battling over whether Congress should mandate expanded vote by mail in November. The president—who regularly votes by mail—has raised unsubstantiated claims of massive voter fraud connected to the practice. Congress so far has provided $400 million to election officials nationwide for COVID-19 related expenses, although the necessary price tag may be $2 billion.
But whether or not Congress acts, mail-in ballots will naturally be more in demand for the general election if the pandemic continues to affect daily life. Five states already conduct elections mostly by mail. They are among the two-thirds of states, including many of the swing states, offering any voter who wishes to vote by mail to do so. These states are going to be inundated with absentee ballots, as evidenced by the explosion in absentee ballot requests that flooded into Wisconsin during its recent primary. With 175 of 180 polling stations closed in Milwaukee last week, voters faced the choice of voting absentee, waiting in long lines and risking their health, or simply not voting. We know what these voters will do in November if they have the choice.
Even the one-third of the states that require an excuse to vote by mail will see a large uptick in requests. Some of those states allow voters over 65 to get the ballots without a particular excuse, and given that the older population is the most vulnerable to the virus, absentee requests will soar. Already, Democrats in Texas are litigating over what should count as an excuse in Texas, with the hope of getting a court ruling that fear of getting the disease is enough.
It is hard to imagine how we could have a successful election without a functional USPS. Even with the postal service running, a number of voters in the Wisconsin primary were disenfranchised because absentee ballots couldn’t get to voters in time and the United States Supreme Court reversed a lower court order extending the time for voters to return them. Many of us were rightly worried by the 10,000 voters disenfranchised by these deadlines in Wisconsin. Now, without a massive infusion of cash, USPS expects to be “financially liquidated” by Sept. 30—right as the election season is gearing up. While it’s unlikely that the mail would entirely stop being delivered, massive service disruptions, delays, and confusion would make the election even more chaotic.
A shutdown of USPS would be catastrophic for democracy. Even though many states with vote-by-mail allow ballots to be dropped at polling places, vote centers, or in special state boxes for the return of envelopes, those ballots get to voters via the U.S. mail. Voters also get other election materials, including in many states the form that is used to request a vote-by-mail ballot in the first place.
Trump’s bizarre opposition to USPS appears to be rooted in his belief that the postal service is giving too good a deal to Amazon. Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, also owns the Washington Post, which reports critically on Trump’s actions. Now, with Trump’s stated opposition to vote by mail as supposedly rife with fraud (it’s not) and harmful to Republicans’ electoral chances (it’s not), his opposition to full USPS funding may harden.
Now is the time for Republican and Democratic state election officials to speak up about the crucial importance of USPS in running a successful election. The practice is being used safely and effectively in a number of Republican states, including Ohio and Utah. USPS is more like a public utility than a business, and it is perfectly reasonable for the government to subsidize it. It is especially important in cheaply connecting rural parts of the United States, areas that have strongly supported the president and whose support could waver with the USPS lifeline cut off.
Vote by mail is not the answer for every voter—and if at all possible we should have safe in-person polling places set up for those voters who cannot or prefer not to use an absentee ballot. But the volume of vote-by-mail ballots in an election year is already enormous, and it is likely to explode if the pandemic still rages. It is a key component to our democracy.
For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to Tuesday’s What Next.