The presidency of Donald Trump has been, for citizens and especially for journalists, a true school in questions of government, legislation and history of the United States. His way of acting, launching probe balloons on Twitter or counting an average of 23.3 falsehoods a day, according to ‘The Washington Post’, continually forces us to study the fine print of the law and of the branches of government: can the president ban a Chinese mobile app? Is it legal to keep children in cages or to deploy the army on the U.S. soil? Can Trump cause the presidential election to be delayed?
In this maelstrom of tweets, coups and scandals large and small, now it is the turn of the United States Postal Service. The public agency, which will be the key to voting in the presidential elections on November 3, given social restrictions and fear of coronavirus infections, is in the crosshairs of the president’s attacks, rhetorical and practical. All polls predict Trump’s defeat, and Trump, who has refused to say whether or not he will accept the results, has been sowing distrust in the vote by mail for months.
“Vote-By-Mail ballots are tricky,” the president declared earlier this month. “Vote-By-Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of the cheaters.” A message that has reiterated over and over again these months of the pandemic, saying that this year’s elections, due to voting by mail, are going to be the “most inaccurate and fraudulent elections in history.”
The president’s suspicions have not been substantiated. The five states in the country where you can vote by mail only for about two decades, which are Colorado, Oregon, Hawaii, Utah and the state of Washington, have registered an anecdotal number of frauds. In the case of Colorado, for example, there have been 14 cases among the 16 million votes cast since 2003; in Hawaii, two frauds out of seven million ballots, according to figures from the Heritage Foundation think tank.
This method is spreading to other states. In the last two electoral cycles, of 2016 and 2018, a quarter of North Americans sent their vote by mail, and, in view of the pandemic, states are making an effort to organize and prevent what has happened, for example, in the New York primaries.
The ’empire state’ held its primaries on June 23. Given the public health situation, 40% of voters cast their vote by mail. But New York does not have the experience and infrastructure of other states to handle hundreds of thousands of ballots sent in an envelope, and authorities have taken six weeks to communicate the results. Voters were also not used to it and more than 100,000 ballots, a fifth of the total, had to be invalidated because they did not meet the requirements.
The case of New York can be replicated in other states of the country and at the mass level of a presidential election, which would make November 3 a nightmare night. A situation in which we do not know who is the winner of the elections for days or weeks, with a president, bent on delegitimizing the vote by mail and probably an army of lawyers litigating until the last ballot throughout the United States.
Beyond his rhetoric, Donald Trump is taking concrete steps to limit voting by mail. His campaign has denounced Nevada, New Jersey and Pennsylvania for taking steps to facilitate this vote. Among them, in the case of Pennsylvania, allowing an authorized person to transfer the ballot of someone who cannot attend in person. The judge processing the claim has required the complainant to present specific cases of fraud committed in this way. The Trump campaign, according to the document obtained by The Intercept, has not presented any cases.
But above all, the White House has implemented cuts in the US Postal Service. The president last May appointed Louis DeJoy, a leading Republican donor and member of his campaign, to take over the agency. Since then, DeJoy has implemented cost reductions on all orders: on working hours, on routes and on the machinery that sorts the letters. A series of measures that, according to DeJoy himself, have caused a clear slowdown in postal services throughout the country.
As a result, postal workers have alerted the governors of 46 states to what is happening at the agency. These cuts, they say, are hurting service and will prevent offices from processing the barrage of ballots expected on November 3 in time.
So right now, the ballot issue has caused a multifaceted conflict between those who want to expand and facilitate this form of voting, given the dangerous and unpredictable nature of the pandemic, and those who want to limit it, claiming that it would create chaos and possible fraud. A total of 30 states have eliminated the requirement to present a receipt to vote remotely and many are already sending the ballots in the envelope to households.
The Democratic Party demands, in turn, to allocate a budget to facilitate elections by mail. He wants the new economic stimulus plan to include $ 3.6 billion so that states can pay for the necessary infrastructure and an additional $ 25 billion for the postal service, whose funding has been frozen by Trump. Republicans are unlikely to accept both games.
A legislative chaos
It is a very complex landscape since each of the 50 states has the power to set the voting rules: what is required to register, where can one register, what documents must be presented or under what conditions can one vote from a distance or through a delegate. Each of these rules can be the subject of a political battle between the Democrats and Republicans of each state, depending also on their balances of power. Last April, the Wisconsin primaries were chaotic for these reasons. In the end, it had to be the Supreme Court that decided the conditions of the vote.
The desire to reduce the costs of the Postal Service, on the part of the Republican Administration, is not new. For years, the idea of making the post office profitable, in part, by cutting costs, has dominated conservatives. In 2018, President Trump created a task force to turn emails into a “sustainable business model.” Among other measures, it planned to increase the price of mail not considered “essential”, a way to clean up the current deficit of $ 9,000 million.
Attempts to implement these reforms have met with strong resistance. The Postal Service is one of the first institutions in this country; its first director was one of the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin. The service connected revolutionaries spread across the vast expanses of North America. With the war against the British won, George Washington made sure that the mail was a public service that allowed Americans to communicate with each other or receive the press at low cost. It was a service, such as roads or defense, from which profitability was not expected.
Voting by mail, in turn, dates back to the Civil War, when northern soldiers, campaigning in the south, could not return home to vote in the 1864 elections. The regiments themselves appointed their observers and commanders, and the votes were transported in envelopes for counting.
The mail has therefore gone hand in hand with the key moments in the history of the United States and, today, the Postal Service is the brand most loved by Americans: above Google, UPS, Amazon and Netflix, according to a survey by Morning Consult. Its advocates argue that by prioritizing profitability over public service, many fellow citizens living in remote regions would be left without the right to receive mail, as getting a letter to some places in Wyoming or South Dakota would be extremely expensive.
The pieces of this umpteenth political battle are already spread out on the board. And they promise to make election day an agonizing and above all long night, which may extend well beyond November 3.