Over the past couple of months in the United States, images of mail collection boxes being removed accompanied by widespread vocal concern over implications for mail-in ballots have gone viral. The USPS has simultaneously seen a sharp rise in failure to deliver mail on time under the new leadership of Louis DeJoy, a major Trump donor. This has prompted a mass hysteria of concerns that the upcoming presidential election could be ‘stolen’ through crippling the ability of Americans to vote by mail.

Mail-in voting is no longer remotely niche, and concerns over its smooth operation deserve to be taken very seriously. In 2016, 21% of voters cast their ballot by mail. As a likely result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and increased voter dissatisfaction with waiting times at polling stations, that group is projected to more than double this year to an enormous 80 million voter cohort. It is imperative to the upholding of American democracy, therefore, that the federal and state governments ensure mail-in ballots operate smoothly.

However, despite its clear importance, the concern over a potential ‘theft’ of the election in November has been massively overblown. There are three main causes of this exaggeration – the timing of DeJoy’s appointment and his reforms, the known pre-existing hyper-concern of some Republicans towards voter fraud and their animosity towards the postal service, and President Trump’s rather confusing and escalating response in the media.

Louis DeJoy was appointed to the position of postmaster general in June of this year. Soon after taking office, he implemented multiple directives aimed at cutting the costs of the postal service, which had been running a deficit for many years. These directives included banning the use of overtime for mail deliveries, banning the use of multiple trips back to the post office in case of new deliveries during the day, and the turning off, dismantling and removal of many mail sorting machines.

These directives had the effect of crippling the ability of the USPS to deliver mail on time, and soon many people noticed that their usual deliveries were being delivered late, in some cases quite significantly so. Some farmers have complained of live cargo being so delayed that it arrived no longer quite so alive. Meanwhile, citizens were, in some areas, able to document mail collection boxes being removed in seemingly significant quantities. Whilst it is yet unclear as to whether these removals were part of DeJoy’s changes, we do know that such collection box removals have been going on since at least 1985, with the current program of removal and moving of mail boxes to more heavily trafficked areas having gone on since 2009. 

It has been well documented that the Republican Party, and the American political right in general, are not the greatest fans of the USPS. It is, after all, government interference in the market. It is also well documented that the American political right are far more vocally concerned with voter fraud than their democrat opponents, often implementing voter-id policies in republican-run states, and requiring that voters request their mail-in ballots much earlier than in some democrat-run states. Indeed, voter fraud is a popular topic for many Fox News hosts. So when President Trump, asked questions regarding the public concerns over the USPS’ recent failings to deliver mail and the potential implications for the postal vote, claimed to want to block USPS stimulus funding in the same sentence as stating opposition to universal mail-in voting, you can see how many were able to see confirmation of their suspicions that President Trump and Louis DeJoy were purposely attempting to ‘kneecap’ mail-in voting. After all, there is evidence to show that mail-in ballots skew more democrat than in-person votes.

From our limited information, it would appear as if USPS failings in delivering mail were an unintended if foreseeable consequence of DeJoy’s cost-cutting directives, while the apparent removal of mail collection boxes were merely part of standard procedure that has been going on for decades. Understandably, however, this is not particularly common knowledge amongst the American people.   As such, images of box removals, when combined with the upcoming election, President Trump’s less-than-virtuous public image, republican animosity towards the USPS, and recent and unexpected failings to deliver mail, stoked a hysteria that was only further amplified by a president who was willing to make public statements contravening the narrative from his own postmaster general. This was all enough to get Speaker Pelosi, in a move of clear political opportunism, to recall congress from its holiday early to pass a largely pointless $25bn postal service stimulus bill that in any case has no hope of passing through the senate. 

On August 18th, Louis DeJoy finally announced a roll back of the cost-cutting measures that had started the mail crisis – mail will once again be delivered in overtime work hours, vans will be able to go back and forth to the post office multiple times a day, and mail sorting machines will no longer be removed, at least until after the election. This should prove enough to quell fears over the USPS’ ability to handle the postal vote, though only time will tell if the lost capacity from the already removed mail sorting machines will complicate the logistics of handling the mail-in ballot. After all, the 2020 election is set to smash through records for mail-in votes, and many concerned voters who were planning to vote by post may instead opt to vote in person this November.

The USPS remains in a difficult situation. It will be allowed to resume its cost-cutting post-election, but as we have already seen it does not appear capable of doing its job without using expensive overtime. It is a bloated government organization with poor-quality capital – one only needs to look at its hideously inefficient, polluting, slow, and unreliable vehicles in comparison with those used by competitors. Thankfully, it has seen its operational deficits reduce over the last decade, but more will start to question whether it should remain burdened with the heavy 2006 requirement of prepaying for retirement 75 years in advance. As is shown by the house’s latest bill, the Democrats appear content to throw twenty-billion-dollar bailouts at the postal service, and likely are unwilling to entertain any realistic solution for making the USPS profitable. And though the Republicans may be more willing to implement some more effective solutions, such as raising mail prices and reducing the number of post offices (and therefore the reach of mail service), they should be careful not to antagonize their rural voter base. They may be correct in pointing out that the ‘constitutional requirement to deliver to all US addresses’ does not actually exist, but they should equally be aware that rural and suburban voters, where the USPS makes its biggest losses, value the mail service dearly, and see it as a key connection between them and the rest of America.