Voting-by-Mail Shows Why Real Bipartisan Postal Reform is Necessary

In January 2017, former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson designated election infrastructure to be critical infrastructure. At the time, he was focused on preventing cyber threats from disrupting the electoral process. But three years later, the most critical infrastructure for holding the 2020 election may be one of the nation’s oldest institutions: the U.S. Postal Service.

Looking ahead to November, our traditional approach to voting (going to the polls on election day) may be impractical for many voters if the pandemic persists and, as expected, public health guidelines require social distancing this fall. Early voting and expanded use of absentee balloting may become much more common than heading to the polls on election day. 

Americans have become increasingly reliant on absentee balloting in recent elections. A quarter of American voters cast their ballots by mail during the 2018 election. In 2020, 46 states have announced plans to allow universal vote-by-mail for the upcoming election. 

But widespread absentee voting is dependent on a strong and sustainable U.S. Postal Service, and that will require a practical and bipartisan commitment to strengthening and reforming this American institution for the long-term. Unfortunately, we’re currently seeing the opposite—Congressional Democrats have pushed for an unrealistic $25 billion bailout, while President Trump has sharply criticized the struggling USPS.

USPS regularly reports quarterly losses totaling billions of dollars. In 2019, the Postal Service lost nearly $9 billion. But the USPS’s outlook is somewhat brighter in 2020. According to nonpublic data provided by the Postal Service, USPS has not only weathered the COVID-19 crisis but is thriving, earning $480 million more than during the same period last year.

While these short-term revenue increases give the USPS some financial breathing room, there’s no denying the long-term challenges. 

The Government Accountability Office recently called on Congress to take responsibility and pass legislation to reform the Postal Service’s business model to address these structural problems: 

“Businesses and foreign postal organizations that faced similar challenges made significant changes, such as reducing less profitable products and services. However, USPS can’t make similar changes because it has been unable to reach an agreement with stakeholders, including Congress, on what actions to take.”

Unfortunately, Congress has been unable to reach a consensus on postal reform over the past decade. Often partisan politics has gotten in the way of finding a bipartisan deal. The next couple of months will probably be no different.

I had a front row seat during one notable, failed postal reform debate. During 112th Congress (2011-2012), I worked for former Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) on the staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and was one of his advisors on the issue. At the time, the Committee debated and passed bipartisan legislation to reform the laws governing the Postal Service. 

But the resulting floor debate in April 2012 devolved into a series of parochial votes aimed to demonstrate Senators’ commitment to protecting the beleaguered institution and honoring its place in American life months ahead of an election. As a result, the Senate passed a bill with few structural reforms and zero chance of passing the Republican-controlled House. 

In 2020, it looks like Congress and the White House are preparing to make the same mistake–focusing on politics rather than actually negotiating a deal to provide near-term financial relief, while reforming the USPS’s struggling business model. Both sides appear to be using the issue to build political support rather than to find consensus around a structural reform. 

Now, the Postal Service is at the core of a national debate about how to hold an election during a pandemic. Since many voters may be unable to go to the polls on election day, expanded absentee balloting and voting-by-mail will be necessary. 

Far below the national political radar, state and local election officials are busy with the nonpartisan responsibility of administering the election, and as such are now preparing and adjusting plans for holding the election, including expanding absentee voting options. 

The election administration community is doing its best to find consensus on best practices, such as how to ensure that voters trust the absentee balloting process (such as by using the US Postal Service’s official election mail logo on all absentee mail communications) and to prevent bad actors from using ballot harvesting to coerce or disenfranchise any voters. 

Federal lawmakers should learn from their example. Rather than using the current national challenges to drive political agendas, it’s time lawmakers work together to find common ground on solutions and a realistic path forward.

The USPS workers who bring mail and packages to our homes during the pandemic are among the essential workers that our communities count on. Come November, they’ll be essential for our elections and the continuity of American democracy. They deserve better than to be treated as political pawns.


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