Mail-in bal­lots put USPS to the test

Trump, elec­tions, bud­getary con­cerns add to agency’s woes

Orlando Sentinel - - Nation & World - By Will Weissert

WASH­ING­TON — The U.S. Postal Ser­vice’s fa­mous motto — “Nei­ther snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couri­ers” — is be­ing tested like never be­fore, by chal­lenges that go well be­yond the weather.

The coro­n­avirus has dev­as­tated its fi­nances. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion may at­tach big strings to bailouts.

The agency’s re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, mean­while, are mount­ing. A dra­matic shift in many states to vot­ing by mail is in­tended to pro­tect vot­ers from spread­ing the virus at polling places. But it’s also mak­ing more work for post of­fices and con­tribut­ing to de­lays in de­ter­min­ing elec­tion win­ners.

Elec­tion re­sults have been de­layed this past week in Ken­tucky and New York be­cause both states were over­whelmed by huge in­creases in mail bal­lots.

“What we don’t need is more chaos in the chaos,” said Wendy Fields, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the vot­ing rights ad­vo­cacy group The Democ­racy Ini­tia­tive.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump op­poses ex­pand­ing vot­ing by mail, as­sert­ing it will trig­ger fraud, even though there’s no ev­i­dence that will hap­pen. Trump and many of his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s lead­ing voices fre­quently vote ab­sen­tee them­selves.

The pres­i­dent has also called the USPS “a joke” and says pack­age ship­ping rates should be at least four times higher for heavy users such as Ama­zon.

But ship­ping pack­ages is a main rev­enue gen­er­a­tor, and crit­ics say Trump is merely look­ing to pun­ish Ama­zon founder Jeff Be­zos in re­tal­i­a­tion for un­flat­ter­ing cov­er­age in The Wash­ing­ton Post, which the bil­lion­aire owns.

Trump has ac­knowl­edged larger po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions are at work, tweet­ing that ex­pand­ing vote by mail will “LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUB­LI­CAN PARTY.”

His Demo­cratic ri­val, Joe Bi­den, has sug­gested that Trump’s op­po­si­tion to ab­sen­tee vot­ing and crit­i­cism of the Postal Ser­vice may help the in­cum­bent “steal” the elec­tion.

Mark Di­mond­stein, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Postal Work­ers Union, which rep­re­sents 200,000-plus em­ploy­ees, said the ad­min­is­tra­tion is “shame­fully try­ing to use the cri­sis to carry out an agenda” of pri­va­ti­za­tion, which would ul­ti­mately “break up the Postal Ser­vice and sell it.”

Ver­mont Sec­re­tary of State Jim Con­dos, a Demo­crat, said “our democ­racy de­pends on a re­li­able post of­fice.”

“Mid­elec­tion year is not the time to see changes in the de­pend­abil­ity of the Postal Ser­vice, es­pe­cially dur­ing a year when our coun­try is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a pan­demic and health cri­sis, which will dra­mat­i­cally in­crease the ne­ces­sity of vot­ing by mail,” he said.

The Postal Ser­vice pre­dates the United States. It was cre­ated by the Sec­ond Con­ti­nen­tal Congress in July 1775, and Ben­jamin Franklin was the first post­mas­ter gen­eral.

Un­like its pri­vate com­peti­tors, the Postal Ser­vice can­not refuse to make costly de­liv­er­ies to es­pe­cially hard-to-reach ad­dresses.

Still, much of its bud­getary con­cerns stem from a 2006 law re­quir­ing the agency to fully fund re­tiree health ben­e­fits for the next 75 years.

It nor­mally op­er­ates with­out tax­payer funds.

But dur­ing the pan­demic, it lost $4.5 bil­lion in the 2020 bud­get year’s sec­ond quar­ter. Congress ap­proved a $10 bil­lion line of credit for the agency as part of an eco­nomic res­cue pack­age in March. Since then, though, the Postal Ser­vice and the Trea­sury Depart­ment have had dis­cus­sions about re­quire­ments to ex­tend those loans.

Nei­ther side will say pub­licly what’s be­ing ne­go­ti­ated, but Trump has made his feel­ings clear.

A 2018 Trea­sury task force also rec­om­mended the Postal Ser­vice in­crease pack­age rates and cut la­bor costs. A sec­ond coro­n­avirus aid pack­age passed in May by the Demo­cratic-con­trolled House in­cludes $25 bil­lion in di­rect aid for the Postal Ser­vice, but the GOP­ma­jor­ity Se­nate hasn’t ap­proved its own ver­sion.

More than 3,420 of the Postal Ser­vice’s 630,00-plus em­ploy­ees have tested pos­i­tive for COVID-19, and some have died. While pack­age de­liv­er­ies have in­creased as Amer­i­cans stay home, mail vol­umes plum­meted — as much as 30%, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can Postal Work­ers Union.

In April, then-Post­mas­ter Gen­eral Me­gan Bren­nan said the agency could be out of money by Sept. 30.

Louis DeJoy, a North Carolina busi­ness­man and GOP fundraiser who’s do­nated to Trump, re­cently suc­ceeded Bren­nan.

Postal Ser­vice spokesper­son David Parten­heimer said more re­cent trends “in­di­cate that our 2020 fi­nan­cial per­for­mance will be bet­ter than our early sce­nar­ios predicted,” though he said much re­mains un­cer­tain.

“Our cur­rent fi­nan­cial con­di­tion is not go­ing to im­pact our abil­ity to de­liver elec­tion and po­lit­i­cal mail this year,” Parten­heimer said.

But Con­dos, who was pres­i­dent of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Sec­re­taries of State from July 2018 to July 2019, fears keep­ing such a prom­ise could force the Postal Ser­vice to cut back on rou­tine ser­vices, which may see vot­ing ma­te­ri­als pri­or­i­tized over reg­u­lar mail. The pres­sure is also on be­cause ab­sen­tee bal­lots for over­seas mil­i­tary mem­bers are sent 45 days be­fore Elec­tion Day — or Sept. 18, which is less than three months away.

“This whole idea that we have un­til Novem­ber to de­cide, we re­ally don’t,” Con­dos said.

Pew Re­search Cen­ter polling in March found that 91% of Amer­i­cans said they had a fa­vor­able view of the Postal Ser­vice. Democrats are clam­or­ing to “save the post of­fice,” and Sens. Bernie San­ders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth War­ren, D-Mass., are among those propos­ing boost­ing Postal Ser­vice prof­its by hav­ing it ex­pand into bank­ing ser­vices, which it pro­vided for decades un­til the 1960s.

Ru­ral Repub­li­cans such as Rep. Don Young, RAlaska, have also called for de­fend­ing the agency. Still, some con­ser­va­tives say ty­ing its fund­ing to Elec­tion Day jit­ters is a par­ti­san ploy.

“It’s just cast­ing seeds of doubt on the le­git­i­macy of the out­come,” said Repub­li­can Tom Ridge, a for­mer Penn­syl­va­nia gover­nor who heads VoteSafe, a bi­par­ti­san group work­ing with state and lo­cal of­fi­cials to ex­pand and strengthen vote-by­mail op­tions. “It’s very sad, it’s very dis­ap­point­ing, it’s very trou­bling.”

JAC­QUE­LYN MARTIN/AP

Gar­rett Schaf­fel, left, and Judy Beard, of the Amer­i­can Postal Work­ers Union, carry a cus­tom-made Pri­or­ity Mail box Tues­day that con­tain pe­ti­tions from cus­tomers urg­ing Congress to ap­prove emer­gency fund­ing for the Postal Ser­vice.

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