If the Postal Service Dies, So Does Democracy

Republicans are now trying to kill the post office and mail-in voting.

There are two big stories this week about a subject that normally sounds painfully boring: the mail. Each is crucially important in its own right, but combined, they presage a nearly apocalyptic threat to American democracy.

The first is that the Donald Trump and Republican Party are engaged in an all-out war against the expansion of mail-in voting in the era of COVID-19. The flimsy outward justification is concern about voter fraud, but of course, there is no evidence of significant voter fraud surrounding mail ballots. In fact, the only major scandal in the modern era around mail-in voting was a corrupt scheme by Republicans in North Carolina—one that was quickly and easily discovered. Republicans aren’t exactly shy about why they want to restrict the expansion of access to mail voting: they think that the more people are allowed to vote, the better Democrats will do against them. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Republicans are far less concerned about the virus than are Democrats, and that in battleground states with Republican legislatures like Wisconsin, there are far more polling places per capita in red districts than blue ones, which means not only longer lines but more dangerous crowding at polling places. It only adds to the Republican turnout advantage if most people have to vote in person.

The opposition to mail voting is amusing given that it has traditionally been advantageous to Republicans, and even now doesn’t much benefit one party or the other. But facing electoral calamity after four years of Trump, plus a disastrous epidemic response and looming recession, Republicans clearly feel their best shot at keeping power is if as few people are allowed to safely vote as possible. It’s a fundamentally immoral stance at odds with the principles of democracy itself. Unfortunately, taking self-serving positions contrary to values of basic decency is a hallmark of Republicanism under Donald Trump. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.

The second story involves the Post Office itself. The United States Postal Service is set to run out of money by September. The previous round of emergency coronavirus aid did not take the long-beleaguered Postal Service into account. Conservative policymakers have been eyeing the USPS with hungry privatizing chops for a long time, and have been hamstringing it with ridiculous provisions like forcing the USPS to take into account 50 years of pension payments in advance in its budget, which no other corporation or public agency has to do.

Donald Trump loves to talk about what a “great American company” FedEx is, and conservatives would love to eliminate the postal service and give all of its operations to private shipping companies and private equity. Of course, long gone would be the days of sending a letter from coast to coast in a few days for a fraction of a dollar, but since when was that sort of thing a concern for Republicans? It’s just like with libraries. If the Postal Service didn’t already exist and you proposed it, it would be considered a ridiculous and wasteful socialist fantasy. In the modern era, Republicans would make sure it never came into being. Mainstream Democrats would means-test it so that everyone would have to fill out tax statements in triplicate to make sure that no one making over a certain amount got a free mailbox.

Are these two stories merely a coincidence? Perhaps. It is possible that just as Republicans are attempting to thwart vote-by-mail to reduce voter turnout in a pandemic, they also just so happen to be defunding the Postal Service.

But what if it’s not? What if the plan is an explicit attempt to cripple the mail system itself as yet another argument against mail-in voting, providing them an excuse to force people to vote in person in a pandemic or not vote at all? It would be a villainous plot straight out of a James Bond film. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real, especially given the current administration. Even if it’s not intentional, the combined effect of both acts of bad faith would certainly be convenient for deeply unpopular conservatives whose only chance of holding onto ill-gotten power is to thwart democracy itself.

Democrats would do well to act as if they were facing opponents with the depraved moral instincts of a Bond villain, and think proactively. Any future assistance on legislation to Trump and McConnell over the coming year should be predicated on both saving the Postal Service and ensuring access to mail-in voting across the country. An election in which one side is lulled into complacency about a pandemic and has lots of polling places available, while the other is rightfully concerned for the public good and being crushed by long lines and crowded locations, is no true election at all. It’s a mockery of democracy and cannot be allowed to stand.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.