Commentary: USPS changes inconvenient, devastating

By Gerald Cohen

It doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots. The president is lagging dramatically in the polls against his presumptive Democratic challenger. A pandemic is tanking the economy, contributing to the uptick in the president’s unfavorability ratings and jeopardizing turnout in the November elections. What to do if you’re Donald Trump and clinging desperately to your reelection hopes?

One option, which seemed unthinkable even a year ago, is to challenge the results and cast doubt on the legitimacy of the upcoming national election.

The pandemic will encourage unprecedented numbers of voters to vote by mail. Some estimates suggest as many as 70% of votes will be cast by mail. So, without any evidence, the president is repeatedly trashing voting by mail, calling it a fraudulent and rigged system.

And to ensure that voting by mail does indeed fail, he’s doing everything in his power to disrupt the timely delivery of mail-in ballots and the financial viability of the U.S. Postal Service.

The Postal Service is currently operating with a $14 billion deficit. Many of its current problems could have been predicted — the rise of digital media, a decades-long plan by conservatives in Congress to privatize its services, and the consequent failure of Congress to adequately fund the post office.

With COVID-19 threatening to inflict a final financial blow, a bipartisan agreement in the Senate sought to throw the post office a $13 billion life preserver. But Trump, who, in April, said, “The Postal Service is a joke,” threatened to veto $2 trillion in COVID-19 aid if it included any grants to the post office. What he’s put in play instead is transparently a coup of the post office.

In May, he appointed Louis DeJoy, a political operative who has donated $1.2 million to the Trump campaign, to the post of postmaster general. DeJoy is the first appointee in 50 years with no Postal Service experience. Financial disclosure forms show that he and his wife own between $30.1 million and $75.3 million in assets in competitors or contractors to the post office.

Under the guise of making the operation more cost-effective, DeJoy eliminated overtime for all carriers, handlers and drivers. Overtime accounts for about 20% of postal workers’ wages. DeJoy’s internal memo to postal workers said: “If the plants run late, they will keep the mail for the next day. If we cannot deliver all the mail due to call-offs or shortage of people, and you have no other help, the mail will not go out.”

DeJoy also directed that the small trucks carriers use to deliver mail will not be able to return to the post office to pick up the day’s remaining mail. That means mail that was scheduled for delivery will have to wait another day or longer as the piles of undelivered mail accumulate. He also has imposed a hiring freeze.

And recently DeJoy announced a shake-up in the top ranks of the organization. In what some critics are calling a “Friday night massacre,” he removed or reassigned 23 executives.

In the final days of July, Trump finally authorized Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to loan, not grant, the Postal Service $10 million in emergency coronavirus funds, but with many strings attached. It required the Postal Service to hand over to the Treasury proprietary information on its 10 largest contractors, including service agreements or contracts with high-volume third-party shippers, such as Amazon. The Postal Service also must provide Treasury with monthly and quarterly financial and volume reports. More recently, DeJoy announced personnel changes in senior Postal Service management.

These and other provisions that were applied to the loan have given Treasury unprecedented control of the daily operations of an institution that until recently was seen as an independent, nonpartisan agency.

So, where is this all headed?

You most certainly can expect delivery delays of letters and packages. For seniors, the consequences will be particularly onerous. About 60% of Delaware’s population is 65 or older. Many rely on the Postal Service to deliver prescriptions and other necessities. Delays are already occurring in some parts of the country, including Delaware.

Reductions in employment opportunities also can be expected. The Postal Service has historically provided an avenue toward middle-class stability for veterans, immigrants and rural migrants. The Postal Service for many years has been the nation’s largest employer of African Americans. In Delaware, 60% or more of postal workers are Black, according to the Pew Research Center.

But perhaps most frightening in the short term will be the potential interference in the November election. Five states already have universal mail-in voting, and none has reported any problems with fraud. In Utah, Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has noted a doubling in turnout from 2016 to the state’s most recent primary. He also says mail-in voting gives people an opportunity to study the ballot and become more informed on the candidates.

The expected increase in turnout is what has Donald Trump most worried. With the polls not looking so good for the incumbent, he and his party have engaged in a number of schemes to suppress turnout, and this is but the latest and most obvious.

The dots are connecting, and the result promises to be not only inconvenient, but devastating to our most cherished democratic right — free, inclusive and fair elections.

Gerald Cohen is a communications consultant and former senior associate dean of strategic communications at Princeton University. He is a member of the Progressive Democrats of Sussex County and lives in Lewes.