When, in 1914, the designers of the New York General Post Office inscribed in stone the words that became the United States Postal Service’s motto — “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” — they clearly didn’t envision the presidency of Donald Trump.
For months, President Trump has been relentlessly attempting to delegitimize and discourage vote-by-mail — a critical tool for election participation in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that requires social distancing. Trump has been spreading unsupported conspiracy theories that allege that vote-by-mail will lead to a rigged election, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud associated with vote-by-mail.
The vote-by-mail drama is the just most recent chapter in a history of Trump and Conservatives belittling and marginalizing the postal service as part of a push to privatize the service. Trump recently called it “a joke. ” But the USPS is no joke. It wasn’t when it was enshrined by the framers of the Constitution, and it isn’t today, certainly not among citizens who rank it high in popularity — and even higher in necessity.
That’s not to say the agency isn’t in real peril. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office referenced its deteriorating financial condition, with the service registering billions of losses over the past decade; $3.9 billion in 2018 alone. In May, the USPS board of governors — all Trump appointees — selected Louis DeJoy, a top GOP and Trump campaign donor, as Postmaster General. DeJoy prohibited overtime and other measures that are used to deliver mail on time and instructed workers to leave mail behind — elevating the crisis and delaying the mail, sometimes for weeks.
Mail delays could prove detrimental for voting in the General Election. A gutted Postal Service will disenfranchise voters and could unnecessarily crowd polling locations, putting voters and elected officials at risk on Election Day. But voting is just one of many basic rights that are facilitated through mail.
In the era of iPhones, email, and Tik Tok, “snail mail” might seem quaint. However, physical mail still plays a critical function in people’s lives — and particularly in people’s interaction with the government.
Being counted: 2020 began with a focus on the census. The process started with postcards sent to every household by mail with instructions to respond to the census online. Since this is the first year online response is offered, it’s expected a high percentage of people will still use the mail to return their forms.
Due process: Courts interact with people through the mail. In Philadelphia, nearly half of all evictions are a result of a tenant not showing up for a hearing in court, often because of lack of proper notice. If mail is delayed for weeks, tenants could be left blindsided without an opportunity to prevent the eviction or find a proper living arrangement.
Administration of benefits and taxes: One of the central features of the first round of coronavirus relief was a one time direct payment for individuals. Many received that payment in the form of a check in the mail. Similarly, other government programs — such as Social Security — interact with beneficiaries through mail. On the flip side, tax documents — such as W-2 — are sent by mail.
Health: In 2019, according to Kaiser Health, more than 9 million prescription drug orders were sent by mail in Pennsylvania alone.
Following an Inquirer report about the impact of mail delays on Philadelphians, members of Congress representing the city, election officials, and local leaders of postal unions met on Wednesday to advocate for funding. The issues of USPS funding is among the sticking points in the negotiations in Congress about the next round of coronavirus relief. The Democratic proposal includes $25 billion to help USPS, while the Republican plan includes no such assistance.
A reliable Postal Service is always critical for a functioning society and democracy, but it is that much more important during a pandemic that forces social distancing. Trump’s attack on USPS, abided by Republicans in Congress, is an attack on many aspects of American life — to say nothing of basic human and constitutional rights. For centuries the postal service survived the elements. Now it needs assistance to survive this administration.