It’s a busy Monday afternoon at the post office on 55th and Valmont in Boulder. The line for the service counter stretches into the lobby as only 10 people, including clerks, are allowed inside to maintain social distancing. As one customer exits, the next is waved in, everyone shifting in the heat of the August day. One lady patiently waits her turn carrying a gift bag — the tip of what looks like a chocolate bar peeking out amid red tissue paper. When she finally makes it to the desk, she simply hands it over to the clerk: “This is for all of you to share. You all are doing so much and I know times are hard,” she says, quickly walking away as to avoid delaying paying customers any longer. It’s a gesture of appreciation for what has long been the country’s most trusted federal agency.
In April, Pew Research Center found that 91% of Americans have a favorable view of the United States Postal Service (USPS). But in the last several weeks the USPS has been thrown into the political spotlight as the coronavirus pandemic has exposed years of funding shortfalls and President Trump has publicly questioned the agency’s ability to handle an influx of mail-in ballots ahead of the November election. At the same time, the new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, has begun implementing a cost-cutting plan that some say may result in delays in service, while the agency maintains its financial condition will not hamper its ability to deliver.
The post office is one of the few federal agencies imbedded in the U.S. Constitution. “It’s meant to promote the public good,” says Richard R. John, professor of history and communications at Columbia University. “Its civic mandate was to provide access to information to citizenry on public affairs. That’s what the founders understood. But a lot has happened since then.”
The early post office helped spread political discourse in the burgeoning republic by delivering not only letters but newspapers as well. It helped establish the foundations of our democracy, John says, by providing universal low-cost information delivery, connecting coastal cities and remote interior communities. Seen as reliable, nonpartisan and impartial, the post office was also foundational in developing the American economy as a great deal of commerce was conducted through the agency — merchants sent money uninsured throughout the country and the world by mail. The service expanded with the railroads in the 19th century, and even further in the early 20th century when it began delivering parcels.
The present-day iteration of the federal mail delivery service, the USPS, was created in the Reorganization Act of 1970, which established it as an independent agency meant to be self-sustaining. At the same time, the mission of the organization was reinforced. “The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities,” the Act reads.
The Act took the post office out of the federal budget, funded entirely by the revenue it generates and not tax dollars, yet Congress still controls its rates and fees for service. Whereas for more than a century before the agency ran large deficits “and no one cared,” John says, now it was expected to cover its costs.
Today, funding shortfalls threaten the solvency of the entire agency. According to the Government Accountability Office, USPS lost $78 billion between 2007 and 2019. Faced with increasing costs, including a 2006 law that mandates the prefunding of retirement for employees, the situation has only worsened in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Preliminary financial data shows a loss of $1.2 billion in April alone.
In an effort to stem some of the financial bleeding, Postmaster General DeJoy has implemented austerity measures minimizing overtime and transportation costs. There have been rumors of post office closures and service cuts as well, prompting Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia to ask DeJoy for an explanation in a July 28 letter.
Robert Helmig, president of the Colorado American Postal Workers Union (APWU), hasn’t heard of any major cuts in the state, except for the overtime limitations. But after years of changes that have hampered hiring and other operations, he’s worried some of the new policies will add to delays that could impede USPS’ ability to deliver essential mail and packages to the most vulnerable populations — people like military veterans awaiting medications and Social Security checks.
“You can cut, cut, cut all you want, but eventually at the end of the day, it’s still going to take a certain amount of people to move that piece of mail from point A to point B,” Helmig says. “And if you don’t have that staffing correctly, then there’s going to be delays. And then once you have delays, it only compounds.”
There’s been a major push in recent months to get emergency funding to USPS, as the agency first said it could run out of cash in September, a timeline that has now been pushed back to 2021. As part of the CARES Act, Congress approved a $10 billion loan for the agency through the Treasury Department, although federal officials have said that USPS is able to currently fund its operations without additional borrowing.
And at the beginning of June, Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine introduced the Postal Service Emergency Assistance Act, which would create a $25 billion fund for the agency, available until September 2022, dedicated to covering losses and/or additional expenses brought on by COVID-19. On July 23, Helmig says APWU members, as well as friends and family, across the country made over 28,000 calls asking their senators to support the bill.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit America’s shores, there has been a growing call to privatize the agency, most notably from President Trump himself, which is unusual, according to John. There was a major push for privatization in 1840, he says, but the movement all but disappeared until recently. Libertarian billionaire Charles Koch has been leading the latest privatization efforts since the 1970s, according to a July report from In the Public Interest. But these efforts, John says, are largely outside the realm of major party politics.
“Public figures do not customarily run on privatizing the post office, especially in red states, because red states tend to have a rural constituency and the rural constituency is concerned about getting their mail,” John says. “Privatization has almost never been a political issue until Trump made it one.”
More recently, Trump has called for the agency to significantly increase its prices, in some cases up to four times the current rates, which are determined by Congress. At the same time, he’s also taken to Twitter to question the agency’s ability to deliver mail-in ballots in a timely manner, going as far as questioning whether the election should be postponed.
But that’s baseless, John says.
“[The Post Office’s] reputation for trustworthiness makes it the ideal vehicle for an election that may have to be conducted in large part by mail,” he says. “It is a direct assault upon the values of the founders to undermine the legitimacy of the post office as an agent for the circulation of ballots in 2020.”
Locally, Colorado has operated a robust vote-by-mail system for years, and officials throughout the state remain confident that USPS will maintain its partnership to ensure a free and fair election come November.
“In a presidential election year, when there’s a lot of, for lack of a better phrase, noise, your County election officials are your trusted source of information,” says Pam Anderson, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association. In weekly meetings with partners, she says USPS managers have assured clerks around the state they don’t anticipate any operational impacts, Anderson says.
“From a national and local perspective, the Postal Service’s financial condition is not going to impact our ability to process and deliver election and political mail,” David Rupert with USPS communications for the Western area writes in an email.
“The Postal Service has a long and successful history of working closely with Colorado election officials to help them prepare for successful primary and general elections — and this year is no different. Our mail system and processes in Colorado are all functioning and we are ready for this fall’s election.”
Despite some of the challenges facing USPS, Helmig maintains his faith in the agency’s ability to deliver election mail in a timely and secure manner. Afterall, he says, millions of people rely on USPS to safely and securely deliver everything from medications to unemployment checks to credit cards.
“I know there’s a lot of naysayers in their trust and the ability for the postal service to help facilitate the vote by mail,” Helmig says. “But a ballot is going to be just as safe and secure as any of those other things.”
Approximately 156 million people could vote in the 2020 election, a large percentage of whom are expected to vote by mail. But USPS currently delivers approximately 181.9 million pieces of first class mail in any given day and 16.5 billion annually. For many, the president’s challenges to the agency are unfounded.
“This is just the latest challenge that this remarkable institution has had to confront,” John adds. “It’s upheld its civic mandate [to provide] universal low-cost service for the entire country. No other organization does anything like what the Post Office did and does.”
Ensure your vote is counted
Colorado voters will start receiving ballots in the mail in early October for the November election. While some states may accept ballots postmarked by Election Day, Colorado is a “ballot-in-hand” state, says Boulder County Clerk and Recorder Molly Fitzpatrick. Only ballots delivered to elections officials either through USPS or drop-off boxes by 7 p.m. on election night are counted. Fitzpatrick says there are several things voters can do to ensure their ballots are received on time. For more information visit bouldercounty.org/elections.
– Keep your voter registration up-to-date to ensure you’re mailed your ballot on time.
– If you don’t get it in the mail, pick up a ballot at a voter service, polling station or through the state’s ballot-to-go program, wherein voters request a ballot and have it delivered to their car.
– Enroll in Ballot Track, the statewide system that notifies voters when their ballots are out for delivery and then also received by voting officials.
– Return your ballot as soon as possible, either by mail (at least a week before Election Day) or at drop-off boxes throughout the county.