President Trump has declared that unless the US Postal Service adopts reforms, he will withhold the $10 billion loan that Congress earmarked as part of the CARES Act, which authorized $1.2 trillion emergency aid to help the hemorrhaging economy due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump has demanded that the postal service raise package delivery rates by four times, a move that would make the postal service more expensive than competitors and hurt the public at a time when it needs the service for delivery of goods during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the postal service’s board of governors selected Louis DeJoy, who currently runs fundraising for the Republican National Convention, to serve as the next postmaster general.
Many assume that the president aims to hurt Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post and Amazon’s CEO and founder. Amazon uses the postal service to distribute the many products it sells.
But while Bezos-bashing is what the president does, the president’s likely real aim is to undermine the presidential election by suppressing turnout. COVID-19, likely to resurge this fall, makes voting by mail essential for millions of Americans who don’t want to put their lives at risk by showing up at the polls.
The postal service is doing outreach on its website to help everyone learn how to vote by mail. Last month, we had a national civics lesson in why the nation should use the mails to vote. In the Wisconsin primary, 1.55 million votes were cast. Most of those ballots — 1.1 million — came in by mail. Yet more would have been if the Supreme Court had not stopped a lower court, which responding to COVID-19, gave more time for receipt of mailed ballots. That limit on vote-by-mail was part of why residents of Milwaukee waited in extraordinarily long lines in the five open voting locations that were down from the usual 180. Cutting the voting off meant that the ballots people had scrambled to get and send did not arrive in the short time-frame.
Voting by mail is also a matter of public health. Polling places need people to staff them. Traditionally those who do so are often senior citizens volunteering in their communities. They are among the most vulnerable to serious effects from COVID-19. Because of this, poll access was limited in Wisconsin, which had been less hard by the coronavirus than many other states. As of Sunday, Wisconsin had 453 deaths compared to 4,891 deaths in neighboring Michigan.
To get ballots in on time by mail requires a post system that works. But if the postal service does not get the $10 billion loan Congress authorized, it could run out of funds by the end of September. According to Postmaster General Megan Brennan, “We are at a critical juncture in the life of the postal service. At a time when America needs the postal Service more than ever, the reason we are so needed is having a devastating effect on our business …. Sales are plummeting as a result of the pandemic."
The revenue hit is expected to be $13 billion this fiscal year, resulting in the postal service running out of cash by September 30. Without the CARES Act money, the postal service will have trouble keeping its fleet of vehicles up and running, its facilities operating, and its workers paid — about six weeks before the November presidential election.
Trump claims, without evidence, that mail-in voting is prone to corruption and ballot fraud. Meanwhile, the selection of DeJoy as the next postmaster raises concerns about the future of mail-in voting.
On May 15, for the first time in history, the House of Representatives did a virtual vote and passed legislation — the HEROES Act — to increase funds directed at rebuilding the nation’s economy. Two major provisions addressed the postal service’s desperate needs. The first amends the CARES Act to make its $10 billion postal service loan mandatory and thereby to free it from having to meet Trump’s terms for price hikes and other reforms.
The second is a new appropriation, available through 2022, of $25 billion to the Postal Service Fund. That funding prioritizes getting postal service workers all the personal protection equipment needed and keeping the postal service up and operating. HEROES also seeks to ensure that the postal service does not turn its back on its history as a key component of democracy’s infrastructure, The ACT requires the Postal Service to expedite the delivery of ballots and to do so whether or not individuals have put stamps on that mail.
The HEROES Act has another lesson for 2020. The House voted virtually so its members could discharge their constitutional obligation to govern without risking their health. Citizens likewise need to be able to be safe when electing our representatives. Freeing the postal service from the trap the Trump administration has set for it is critical to keeping the democracy healthy. We can’t have a fair, free, and a safe election without the mail.
Robert Taylor is former principal deputy general counsel at the Department of Defense. Judith Resnik is professor of law at Yale Law School.