In the 2016 U.S Presidential election, approximately 33 million voters cast their ballots by mail, which accounted for one quarter of all ballots cast. With the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented number of Americans are expected to vote by mail this year. According to an estimate by New York Times, at least three-quarters of American voters are eligible to receive a ballot in the mail for the 2020 Election and if recent election trends hold, roughly 80 million Americans will vote by mail.
However, since Louis DeJoy, a Republican megadonor and an ally of President Donald Trump, took over as postmaster general in June, a postal crisis has loomed above the heads of millions of Americans who plan on voting by mail. DeJoy implemented controvercial measures such as banning overtime to reduce costs and removing mail sorting machines. Many worried that these new policies are a form of voter suppression aimed to tip the election in the favor of Trump.
They are not wrong. In fact, the USPS controversy serves as a great example of stealth authoritarianism. Ozan Varol, a law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, argues that because of the post-Cold War international crackdown on authoritarian practices, autocrats now increasingly deploy laws and legal institutions in democratic regimes for anti-democratic purposes.  Although the USPS is not technically a legal institution, Varol’s analysis on stealth authoritarianism is still applicable since USPS is a independent agency of the Executive branch that can be abused in ways that appear neutral on the surface yet erode democracy in the dark.
The USPS controversy is an example of stealth authoritarianism for two reasons. First, replacing career civil servants and nonpartisan officials with loyalists is a common stratety through which stealth authoritarianism is achieved.  Metaphorically speaking, packing supposedely neutral institutions with loyalists allows autocrats to use these institutions to do their own bidding.  DeJoy is the first postmaster general in two decades who is not a career postal employee. In comparison, Megan Brennan, his predecessor, began her career in the USPS as a letter carrier in 1983. She subsequently worked as a delivery and collection supervisor, a processing plant manager, a district manager, etc., before being chosen as the postmaster general.
How did DeJoy become the new postmaster general? Likely because of his deep ties with and loyalty to the Republican Party. He has been a megadonor to the Republican Party, donating over $1.5 million to Trump’s campaigns in 2016 and 2020. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the USPS Board of Govorners, all of whom were selected by Trump and confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate chose DeJoy as the new postmaster general. Once he took office, DeJoy quickly began carry out the plan to undermine mail-in voting as Trump had threatened to do for several months. He shrouded measures that reduced the number of mail processed daily—decomissioning 10% of the mail sorting machines, shutting done sorting machines early, limiting mail transportation—with noble goals such as cost-cutting. DeJoy also reassigned or displaced 23 USPS officials, including two top executives who oversee day-to-day operations, which continued the process of sidelining career Postal service people and further consolidated the Trump administration’s control of USPS.
Second, the measures DeJoy implemented would suppress the vote of people who are more inclined to vote for the Democratic Party, and abusing neutral institutions in such a way that disadvantage political opponents is another common form of stealth authoritarianism according to Varol.  Undermining the capacity of USPS to process mail disproportionally impact Biden supporters for a few reasons. Both polling and ballot request data show that Biden supporters are more likely to vote by mail. In addition, due to social distancing rules and a potential shortage of poll workers (most poll workers are above 60 years old and hence at a higher risk for COVID-19), lines are expected to be longer than usual especially in urban ares where voters lean towards voting for Democrats.
Hence, the appointment of DeJoy, a loyalist with little to no Postal experience, to the position of postmaster general can be seen as a form of stealth authoritarianism even if USPS does not fall into the category of legal institutions. In fact, the postal crisis points to the alarming trend that stealth authoritarianism can be achieved through venues other than laws and legal institutions and is even more expansive than previously thought. Ozon O. Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015): 1673-1742.  Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018).