U.S. Postal Service carrier Henrietta Dixon gets into her truck to deliver mail in Philadelphia in May of this year. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press file photo)

U.S. Postal Service carrier Henrietta Dixon gets into her truck to deliver mail in Philadelphia in May of this year. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press file photo)

Commentary: 5 questions about the mail and the election

A look at mail delays, concerns about the election and what the future holds for the U.S. Postal Service.

By Jena Martin and Matthew Titolo / For The Conversation

The U.S. Postal Service implemented operational changes earlier this year that led to a sharp increase in delayed mail, raising concerns about the election as record numbers of Americans vote by mail this year due to the pandemic.

The Supreme Court’s Oct. 19 decision to allow Pennsylvania to extend the deadline for accepting mail-in ballots was the latest sign of just how important the U.S. Mail could be to the outcome of the election.

We asked legal scholars Jena Martin and Matthew Titolo to explain why the delays have continued and to discuss their impact on the election and efforts to solve the Postal Services’s ong-term fiscal challenges.

1. Why have there been so many delays?

The short answer is because of the operational changes made in June by the Trump administration’s freshly appointed postmaster general, Louis DeJoy.

Within weeks of his arrival, DeJoy eliminated overtime, had hundreds of sorting machines dismantled and ordered employees to leave mail behind at distribution centers to ensure they could finish their routes on time.

As a result, the share of delayed mail surged in late July, according to internal documents.

The long answer, however, has to do with the Postal Service’s dire financial situation, which is why DeJoy said he made the changes, the implementation of which he later promised to postpone until after the election.

Despite DeJoy’s pledges, the delays have persisted. About 30 percent of long-distance mail and 45 percent of local mail was delayed by at least a day over the four-week period ending Oct. 12, according to The New York Times, which is tracking millions of pieces of first-class mail originating in four cities. That’s about double what was typical in 2019.

2. Why is the USPS suffering financially?

Unlike other federal agencies, the modern Postal Service is self-funded, which means it must generate its own revenue stream to use for operations; as opposed to receiving revenue from tax dollars. The more revenue the Postal Service can generate, the more resources it can devote to upgrades, salary increases and other benefits to the agency.

From 1982 — when the government stopped subsidizing the post office — through 2006, it earned a profit in all but five years. It began operating at an annual loss in 2007 after Congress forced it to pre-fund its pension obligations — which required setting aside about $5 billion a year — an onerous obligation that is out of step with how other agencies and businesses fund their pensions.

This has created an ongoing budget crisis that has left the agency unable to devote as much money to sorely needed improvements. Nor can it keep up with the strains that have been placed on it since the pandemic began. While the volume of profitable first-class mail has dropped sharply, the number of packages has soared as Americans have avoided shopping in physical stores and are ordering more stuff online.

Congress included a $10 billion loan for the Postal Service in its March coronavirus relief bill to help it get through the pandemic. This money should help the USPS operate normally until August 2021. However, disputes between the U.S Treasury and USPS regarding how to spend that money were only recently resolved.

The surge of election-related mail in the past few weeks, especially in battleground states, has caused even greater mail volume for the agency, leading to missed targets for on-time mail delivery in those areas.

3. What does this mean for the election?

Until this year, the Postal Service has managed to do a lot with a little. It’s long been considered the most trusted government agency in the nation.

But the delays — and concerns about how it will manage an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots for the election — are eroding that trust

The USPS now faces lawsuits from more than 20 states and such large cities as San Francisco and New York over the operational changes, as well as confusing election-related flyers the agency sent to voters.

After issuing a nationwide injunction against DeJoy’s restructuring efforts in September, a federal judge described them as “an intentional effort on the part of the current administration to disrupt and challenge the legitimacy of upcoming local, state and federal elections.”

A second judge ordered that election mail be prioritized.

Although in August the USPS warned states that it couldn’t guarantee all ballots would arrive in time for Election Day, DeJoy has since promised the agency will be able to handle the surge in mail.

4. What does it mean for voters?

If you’re in a state where mail-in ballots are automatically sent to all voters — such as Washington, California and Nevada — there’s a greater risk your ballot will experience delays in the mail.

In addition, most states require mail-in ballots to arrive by Election Day. Pennsylvania voters got a little relief after the Supreme Court on Oct. 19 left in place a ruling that lets the state count them even if they arrive up to three days late; as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3.

Nonetheless, concerns about mail delays have prompted both Democrats and Republicans to urge their supporters to vote in person or use drop boxes if possible to minimize the possibility of discarded ballots that favor their candidate.

If you still want to vote by mail, officials suggest you request a ballot as soon as possible; deadlines vary by state. In most states, you can track your ballot to make sure it’s arrived safely.

5. What will happen to the Postal Service after the election?

DeJoy made the changes as part of what he described as a necessary and long-overdue overhaul of the agency to stop the financial bleeding. Some Democrats, postal employees and others have accused him of laying the groundwork for privatizing the USPS.

Talk of privatization is hardly new. Critics of the USPS as a public agency argue that turning the agency into a private entity would increase the organization’s efficiency.

But the problem is this ignores the essential — and less profitable — public utility services the USPS provides. Our own review of the ramifications of privatization found that many essential services that are not profitable but enhance the public good would be lost if the Postal Service became a for-profit corporation.

For instance, unlike FedEx or UPS, the Postal Service has a universal service obligation. That means it is required to deliver mail and provide services to every person living in the United States, including in rural communities, even if doing so isn’t profitable. FedEx and UPS have no such requirement.

In fact, both FedEx and UPS use the Postal Service’s last-mile service to deliver their packages to rural customers precisely because it is not profitable for them to do so.

In addition, although few realize it, the Postal Service provides many benefits to the public beyond mere mail delivery, such as passport services and a program that aims to check in on elderly customers.

As for the Postal Service’s impact on American elections, if it were privatized, politicians would likely lose a key way they reach voters because their campaign flyers and other political mail are currently subsidized at reduced nonprofit rates. A privatized USPS would likely significantly raise those rates, which only more established candidates may be able to afford.

Jena Martin and Matthew Titolo are professors of law at West Virginia University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Opinion

Editorial cartoons for Friday, April 12

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

FILE - In this photo taken Oct. 2, 2018, semi-automatic rifles fill a wall at a gun shop in Lynnwood, Wash. Gov. Jay Inslee is joining state Attorney General Bob Ferguson to propose limits to magazine capacity and a ban on the sale of assault weapons. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Editorial: ‘History, tradition’ poor test for gun safety laws

Judge’s ruling against the state’s law on large-capacity gun clips is based on a problematic decision.

Schwab: Repent! God is angry at the sins of Trumpublicans

Why else would God have directed His earth-shaking wrath near Trump’s New Jersey golf course?

Marysville neighborhood commits to building neighbor culture

In a time when so many of us live our lives through… Continue reading

Look at what Biden, Democrats have done

All these crises belong to President Biden and the Democrats. Sixty days… Continue reading

Trump’s policies aren’t Christian

Donald Trump is masquerading as a Christian. It is obvious that he… Continue reading

Comment: Trump’s attempt to appeal to Christians may be mistake

It won’t cost him his current supporters, but he may lose converts among those offended by his false piety.

This combination of photos taken on Capitol Hill in Washington shows Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., on March 23, 2023, left, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., on Nov. 3, 2021. The two lawmakers from opposing parties are floating a new plan to protect the privacy of Americans' personal data. The draft legislation was announced Sunday, April 7, 2024, and would make privacy a consumer right and set new rules for companies that collect and transfer personal data. (AP Photo)
Editorial: Adopt federal rules on data privacy and rights

A bipartisan plan from Sen. Cantwell and Rep. McMorris Rodgers offers consumer protection online.

Students make their way through a portion of a secure gate a fence at the front of Lakewood Elementary School on Tuesday, March 19, 2024 in Marysville, Washington. Fencing the entire campus is something that would hopefully be upgraded with fund from the levy. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Levies in two north county districts deserve support

Lakewood School District is seeking approval of two levies. Fire District 21 seeks a levy increase.

A stop sign defaced with a spray-painted swastika is on the ground at the corner of 25th street and Rucker Avenue while a City of Everett worker installs a new one in the summer of 2009.  (Dan Bates / The Herald) 

Bates / The Herald)
Editorial: Necessary study of violent extremism gets reprieve

The budget funds a task force that will consider a public health approach to addressing hate crimes.

Editorial cartoons for Thursday, April 11

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Logging of forests releases more carbon, even if replanted

A recent letter to the editor responding to a commentary objecting to… Continue reading

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.