The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Trump’s war on the Postal Service could create an election nightmare

A voter drops off a ballot in Hoboken, N.J., on July 7. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)

For most of his time in office, President Trump has attacked and criticized the U.S. Postal Service, for reasons that range from the bizarre to the intensely personal. And lately, he has been waging a crusade against voting by mail, apparently out of the mistaken belief that it inherently benefits Democrats.

These two Trump wars — against the USPS and against mail voting — may be coming together to produce an election nightmare come November.

Have you noticed a slowdown in your mail delivery recently? Letters taking longer to reach you? Some days when you don’t get mail at all? If you have, you’re not alone. And that’s where our story starts.

Back in May, the USPS Board of Governors named Louis DeJoy to be postmaster general, despite the fact that he had no experience with the Postal Service. He was, however, one of the country’s leading Republican donors; since 2016 he has given over $2 million to the Trump campaign and Republican causes. He was made the finance chairman of the 2020 Republican convention, and his wife was nominated by Trump to be ambassador to Canada.

After taking the helm at USPS, DeJoy began looking to cut costs in the name of “efficiency.” Among his methods was banning the use of overtime — if you’re a mail carrier and because of a large volume of mail you can’t finish your route on your scheduled shift, you’ll just have to leave the leftovers for tomorrow. Then things keep backing up.

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

In a memo obtained by The Post, USPS workers were told, “One aspect of these changes that may be difficult for employees is that — temporarily — we may see mail left behind or mail on the workroom floor or docks.”

The inevitable result is that the service all of us receive from the Postal Service becomes slower and less reliable. To Trump — who calls the USPS “a joke” and threatened to veto any stimulus bill that helped the agency stabilize its finances — that’s a feature, not a bug.

We should pause here to say that the USPS is nothing short of a national treasure. It’s older than America itself — Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general in 1775 — and every day it executes an astounding feat of logistics, delivering hundreds of millions of letters and packages to addresses across the country. They’ll take your letter from coast to coast not for the $30 or more that FedEx or UPS will charge, but for 55 cents. And they provide a stable, middle-class living for hundreds of thousands of workers who don’t need college degrees to succeed.

All of which is why the Postal Service is the most popular agency in the federal government, beating out the National Park Service, NASA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But now it’s under threat. And while untold numbers of customers missing their mail for a day or two is bad, on Nov. 3 it could turn into an absolute nightmare.

Thirty-five states now either allow no-excuse absentee voting or vote entirely by mail, and during this pandemic, more people than ever will choose to avoid polling places and cast their ballot that way. That already means that the Postal Service will have to handle more absentee requests and ballots than ever before — and Trump’s postmaster general has forbidden its workers from working overtime.

Now here’s the kicker. In 34 states, under current law it’s not enough that your absentee ballot be postmarked by election day. It has to be received by election authorities by election day.

That includes the swing states of Arizona, Georgia, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

So imagine you get your absentee ballot and finally fill it out on Saturday, October 31st. The next morning you drop it in the mailbox — but there’s no pickup on Sunday. It gets picked up Monday, but your local post office is so overwhelmed with thousands of mail ballots that your ballot doesn’t get delivered to your board of elections until Wednesday, November 4th.

If you live in one of those 34 states, your vote won’t count.

It’s already been happening in the primaries; last month, NPR reported that “at least 65,000 absentee or mail-in ballots have been rejected because they arrived past the deadline, often through no fault of the voter.” And the number of mail ballots will be far larger in the general election.

You may have heard that we need to be prepared for the vote count to take longer this year; because mail ballots take longer to process and there will be so many more of them, it could be a couple of days before we know who won the presidential election.

That’s bad enough, but we now face a situation in which hundreds of thousands of Americans could find their ballots tossed in the trash — which could not only interfere with the election, but also make people angry at the Postal Service itself. And that would make Trump very happy.

Read more:

Charles Lane: A disaster brewed for years in the Postal Service. The coronavirus has engulfed it in crisis.

Paul Waldman: Trump’s war on the Postal Service just got a giant boost

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Congress must stand up to the White House and deliver relief to the Postal Service