The United States Postal Service (USPS) has offered essential services to the people of the United States for more than 240 years. Among these services include the secure delivery of absentee ballots during election years, and this election year is no different. So far, USPS has delivered more than 100 million ballots ahead of the 2020 election in response to the anticipated increase due to COVID-19. This has not been without its challenges.
It is no secret that the USPS has struggled financially over the past several years, owing more than $143 billion total in debt. Recently, the non-partisan institution has faced significant institutional changes under the Trump administration in the name of efficiency. However, these changes have negatively affected their performance in ballot delivery. What would motivate the executive office to pursue a postal service? The motives go beyond economical reasons.
The changes implemented by the Trump administration to USPS can be observed as authoritarian behavior through their possible attempts at expanding executive power and manipulating the polls to win re-election. The right to free and fair elections  and our democracy could rest on one of the most essential government institutions.
Since the beginning of 2020, President Trump has voiced his negative opinions on universal mail-in ballots and financial relief for USPS. The administration has refused significant aid to USPS by blocking proposals made by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, going insofar as calling it a “partisan stunt,” with Trump expressing his refusal to make mail-in voting more accessible for voters. He continues to use harmful rhetoric towards the validity of mail-in ballots in the upcoming election and how the post office plays into this narrative. Among many of his criticisms, he has stated that mail-in voting could lead to voter fraud and “the greatest rigged election in history.”
Trump’s accusations on the integrity of the upcoming election, as well as his refusal to expand mail-in ballot access are calls for concern. His rhetoric not only undermines an institution, but the validity of the election as well, which exhibits a key indicator of authoritarian behavior . Undermining the capability and role of USPS in US elections could lead to civil unease around the results of the upcoming election in November.
Late spring 2020, Trump appointed Louis DeJoy as the new United States Postmaster General to address rising USPS concerns. This decision was not without controversy. A former businessman, DeJoy has had ties to Trump and the GOP as a Republican mega-donor.
By electing a party loyalist to a high-ranking position such as Postmaster General, there are concerns that DeJoy could easily be influenced by Trump and the GOP. It is certainly easier to exercise executive aggrandizement by taking over USPS. Executive aggrandizement refers to an executive invoking institutional changes in order to expand their scope of power and weaken checks on said power . Sometimes such changes involve electing officials that match the ideologies of the executive to prevent the opposition from getting in the way. These institutional changes can be done through democratic, legal means as Trump did in appointing DeJoy. The worry here is that by electing a party loyalist to a critical position in USPS, there is the increased possibility of the authoritarian party being able to oversee and manipulate the flow of mail-in ballots in a way that best tailors the results of the election.
Suspicion further arises from observing the effects of Dejoy’s drastic operational changes. According to a report by Senator Gary Peters, these operational changes proved disastrous for USPS. The amount of late deliveries increased dramatically with certain states seeing up to a 15-20% drop of on-time deliveries and a reduction of weekly processing trips by about 10,000 to 20,000 leading to displaced mail since DeJoy walked in.
Reflecting on the detrimental changes made by the Trump administration to the postal service, why would these changes suggest an authoritarian attack on free and fair elections? A better question to ask is how does the harm done to USPS affect voters and the upcoming election.
It is important that mail-in ballots arrive in time to be counted for the election in accordance with state voter laws. The delay in deliveries through USPS could lead to voided ballots. It was late deliveries that led to about 50,000 ballots not being able to count towards the 2020 primaries. There is a strong correlation to USPS delays and reduced trips occurring in swing states, especially. States such as Wisconsin and Michigan which anticipate increased democratic voter turn-out have witnessed these delays. Detroit, specifically, has seen a 19.1% point drop in on-time deliveries.
Most notably, one can observe these changes most in low-income, marginalized communities compared to wealthy, white suburbs. For many marginalized communities, USPS is essential in delivering mail for minimal cost. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see high rates of voter suppression among these communities. Marginalized voters historically vote for the democratic candidates and are seeing an increased voter-turnout. This population has been severely impacted by the reduction of service by USPS. Voting has not only been made difficult by the pandemic, but there seems to be an incentive in drastically delaying mail for these communities who can otherwise not afford to mail their ballots through other means or vote in person. An expansion of mail-in ballots would allow many of these community members to exercise their right to vote in a free and fair way.
Trump has redirected the path of USPS away from these communities, altering important aspects of the foundation and rules around elections through legal means. Specifically, he does so under the guise of preventing electoral fraud and protecting state interests. This tactic is one notably seen under stealth authoritarians, who will use the laws of a democracy to subtly get away with violations of democracy . By correlating mail-in ballots to fraud and allowing the USPS to take the fall for delays, Trump is able to avoid blame for varied results in the election and possibly manipulate the voter demographic to aid in his re-election. Free and fair elections are crucial for the health of a democracy. By hurting the very institution that serves a compromised demographic, Trump aids in further eroding US democracy.
Much can be said towards whether the changes put forth are meant to address the financial concerns of a struggling USPS or if they are strategically thought-out plans by an authoritarian ahead of the election. Whether or not these attempts have been successful, we will have to wait and see. But the effects on US democracy will be long-lasting.
 Roald Dahl, “Democratization and Public Opposition,” in Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), 1-16.
 Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018), 65.
 Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy 21, no. 1 (January 2016), 5-19
 Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015): 1673-1742.
Photo by Trinity Nguyen on Unsplash
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