The very American Postal Service now a partisan pawn, with democracy at stake

At a critical time for our right to vote, some leaders try to sabotage the agency

Some of our country’s leaders seem determined to sabotage the U.S. Postal Service, Curtis writes, at a time when it could be so crucial to the right to vote.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Some of our country’s leaders seem determined to sabotage the U.S. Postal Service, Curtis writes, at a time when it could be so crucial to the right to vote. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 25, 2020 at 6:00am

When I was a little girl, the youngest of five children in a family with parents who made ends meet while never letting us see them sweat, the U.S. Postal Service was as welcome as Santa during the holidays. While dad was tending bar and waiting tables at parties after he signed off from his 9-to-5, mom picked up shifts at the post office, handling the packages and cards that swamped the system in December.

God bless the Postal Service, an essential piece of America’s history before it was America and included in the U.S. Constitution, which gave Congress the power “to establish post offices and post roads.” Founding father Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster general under the Continental Congress, and a young Abraham Lincoln was appointed postmaster of New Salem, Illinois, in 1833.

Though African American postal workers experienced discrimination, they sought work and served despite routine and harsh obstacles. Well into the civil rights era, that federal job could be sustenance for African Americans locked out of corporate America. Among the postal force could be found many civil rights activists, such as John L. LeFlore, a letter carrier in Mobile, Alabama, from 1922 to 1965, and an NAACP organizer who fought for the desegregation of Mobile’s public schools and businesses and for voting and housing rights.

Loading the player...

The post office has been a pathway to the middle class for many hardworking families of every race, and has delivered in urban centers and rural outposts without fear or favor, in snow and rain and heat and gloom of night and … you know the rest, to bring mail, medicine and more. Connections forged with letter carriers could be more personal than businesslike.

What’s not to like?

A lot, to listen to some of our country’s leaders, who seem determined to sabotage something that has been integral to the country’s development. This is at a time when the Postal Service could be crucial to the right to vote, which might explain one reason for the controversy — the No. 1 reason, perhaps.

A crucial time

Did you see the lines that wrapped around blocks, the voters of all ages who waited for hours and braved fears of the coronavirus to cast a ballot in the Wisconsin primary? In that state and in Georgia, some voters who had requested absentee ballots never got them, so they traveled to a shrinking number of woefully understaffed polling places.

In Georgia, Stacey Abrams, whose own gubernatorial race was plagued with voting problems and whose group Fair Fight advocates fair and free elections, said the return envelope for her absentee ballot arrived sealed. So in a terrible coincidence, or an expertly specific bit of trolling, Abrams, too, had to vote in person.

In Kentucky this week, the one polling place for all of Jefferson County, which includes Louisville, caused concern that the elderly, those with disabilities or those without transportation would be unduly inconvenienced; a judge ruled that voters inside at 6:30 p.m., a half-hour after closing time, be allowed to cast a ballot.

It’s clear that mail-in voting, now conducted in five states and used in many others during the pandemic, could be one alternative to those still concerned about venturing out in November.

A choice between democracy and health is one no American should be forced to make.

Vote-by-mail is not a perfect solution, of course, especially for those without a permanent address. With cuts have come delivery delays. There must be protections to secure and count each ballot. And there is no guarantee that a mailed and received ballot won’t be rejected by an elections official who judges a signature mismatch, something studies show happens disproportionately to minority and young voters.

But those problems could be fixed if our legislators had the will or desire to get started now — and to shore up a postal service that needs help; an election-time burden would make the holiday rush look like a breeze.

GOP punching bag

Instead, the Postal Service and the very idea of vote-by-mail has become a favored target of President Donald Trump, his supporters and many, though not all, Republicans.

The Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act, introduced by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., includes provisions to protect American voters during a pandemic and contains support for extensive mail-in voting. To say Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues are not enthusiastic would be an understatement.

The president’s claims about voting by mail have only gotten more preposterous, with a tweet this week that “MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!” (The all-caps are his.)

He has also claimed ballots would be stolen from mailboxes and, saying the quiet part out loud when referring to Democratic proposals to make voting easier during the pandemic, “if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Trump is joined in his disproved allegations of potential fraud and worse by Attorney General William Barr, though both men, as well as a slew of White House and administration officials and staff have voted by mail. As in the case of his and his staff’s ability to get frequent coronavirus tests on demand, it’s another example of good for me but not for thee.

Though the most prominent case of election fraud, an overturned result and a do-over, involved a GOP operative in North Carolina, facts don’t matter, especially when it provides a chance to cry “Rigged!” if November results don’t turn out the way a certain president would like.

Trump has called the U.S. Postal Service a “joke,” and balked at supporting a financial lifeline to the agency, burdened with debt since it was forced to pre-fund its pension plans. While its employees are suffering during the COVID-19 crisis, the president has insisted the Postal Service raise its rates as a carrier for companies such as Amazon, owned by Trump nemesis and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos.

Its fate is partly in the hands of a relatively new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, a North Carolina businessman without agency experience, who has donated millions to Trump and the GOP. He told the Federal News Network that postal reform would include identifying “new and creative ways” for the service to fulfill its mission with a focus on efficiency. With census forms and ballots of great importance, American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dimondstein told a House Administration hearing recently that vote-by-mail efforts depend on the Postal Service’s financial stability.

What if leaders believed in making it easy for everyone to vote, in competing for Americans’ support in the marketplace of ideas? Instead, the Republican Party is putting millions into recruiting “poll watchers” to question who votes and how.

I hope the Postal Service is not a casualty. Maybe I’m a dinosaur, but I enjoy chatting with the clerks and perusing the latest Black Heritage Stamps. I remember how it saved many a Christmas in my house.

Knowing that this American institution is an important part of maintaining democracy is icing.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.