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Timothy L. O'Brien: Don't let the Postal Service derail the presidential election

Timothy L. O'Brien, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Op Eds

When Louis DeJoy became postmaster general in May, he was the first person in more than 20 years to run the U.S. Postal Service who had never worked there. His predecessor, Megan Brennan, had spent her entire career with the service, originally as a mail carrier.

On the other hand, DeJoy, an accountant, founded and sold a company, New Breed Logistics, that worked for decades with the Postal Service and other public and private enterprises wrestling with supply and transportation challenges. DeJoy's Postal Service work while running New Breed reportedly focused on the basics: repairing postal equipment, mail bags and hampers.

In theory, what DeJoy lacked in familiarity and expertise would be more than offset by a fresh, outside perspective and an ability to help modernize the Postal Service, which employs almost 500,000 people, operates a massive domestic retail network (bigger than McDonald's Corp., Starbucks Corp. and Walmart Inc. combined) and, until COVID-19 arrived, was delivering 182 million pieces of first-class mail daily.

I would think DeJoy also came to the attention of the Postal Service's board of governors because he is a generous political donor to President Donald Trump and the Republican Party. Since 2016, according to Federal Election Commission records, DeJoy has donated more than $2 million to Trump's campaign and other Republican groups. As recently as February, he gave $210,600 to a political action committee, Trump Victory. The Republican National Committee and the McConnell Senate Committee have also received money from DeJoy. In 2017, he hosted a joint fundraiser for Trump and the RNC at his North Carolina home.

DeJoy's wife, Aldona Wos, is vice chairwoman of the President's Commission on White House Fellowships and was nominated by Trump to be the next U.S. ambassador to Canada. DeJoy and Wos have disclosed financial assets worth $30.1 million to $75.3 million, the bulk of which is tied up in the company that bought New Breed from them. But they also have small stakes in Postal Service competitors, such as United Parcel Service Inc.

All of this has weighed heavily on DeJoy's brief tenure. When he arrived at the Postal Service, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was leading a White House effort to leverage federal bailout funding to get the struggling agency to agree to greater presidential control. Trump himself was exercising his animus toward Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com Inc. and owner of The Washington Post, threatening to tie up the $10 billion Congress had earmarked for the Postal Service until it raised prices for package deliveries Amazon relies on.

That mud wrestling prompted the resignation of a veteran member of the Postal Service's board of governors. Another veteran left the 11-member board after DeJoy's appointment. In short order, the postal workers' union and Democrats in Congress voiced concerns that the Postal Service had become politicized and that DeJoy was a stalking horse for Trump's resentments -- and for the possibility that the beleaguered president would use the service to undermine mail-in voting for the November election.

In mid-July, DeJoy made a number of operational changes, including eliminating overtime for postal workers and shorter post office hours, that promised to slow down mail delivery and could throw a wrench into mail-in voting. DeJoy said it was all about cost-cutting and efficiency. Senior Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform wondered otherwise and on July 20 asked DeJoy to respond to requests for more information about those changes. They also wanted to know why he was running the Postal Service like a "private company" rather than "the constitutionally mandated public service that it is."

As I wrote in April, there's no question that the Postal Service needs improvement, and if that means adopting some private sector practices, so be it. But there's no reason to believe that's why Trump has taken such a close interest in it. The president has tried to bend federal agencies to his whims or self-interest rather than refashion them as engines of enhanced public service. The Postal Service is no exception.

Trump and Attorney General William Barr also have repeatedly, and falsely, slagged mail-in voting as riddled with fraud, despite the fact that both of them and 14 other senior Trump administration officials have voted by mail. Why wouldn't they take the next logical step and disrupt the Postal Service's machinery with federal fraud investigations draped in the cloak of "good government" -- particularly when Trump is deeply underwater in most presidential polls and has been saber-rattling about postponing Election Day?

That possibility isn't lost on casual observers, including former presidents. During his eulogy last week for Rep. John Lewis, Barack Obama warned that an attack on voting rights is already being conducted "with surgical precision, even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that is going to be dependent on mailed-in ballots so people don't get sick."

 

Most states allow some form of mail-in voting. Although Republicans fear it favors Democrats, studies have indicated that it hasn't provided an advantage historically for either party. Still, anything that makes voting easier increases turnout, and increased turnout has always been a boon to Democrats. And this election year is unlike any other in the modern era because of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic upheaval, social protests, and the partisan passions sparked by Trump. Americans are likely to be highly motivated to vote while also being deeply worried about doing so safely at public polling booths.

Voters also favor voting early, using mail-in ballots. The number of voters who have done so on Election Day more than doubled to 57.2 million in 2016, from 24.9 million in 2004 -- an increase from about 20% to 40% of all ballots cast. The 2020 election promises to bring an even greater spike. States, which actually run elections despite White House views to the contrary, will need fiscal and logistical support to manage what is likely to be a massive upswing in mail-in voting.

Prompt delivery of mail-in ballots will be key to this functioning well. A majority of states won't accept mail-in ballots unless they arrive by Election Day, even if they're postmarked prior to Election Day.

I'm sure the postmaster general wouldn't want to see tens of millions of ballots arrive after Election Day, depriving Americans of a fundamental right. But to make sure, Congress will need to do more than write DeJoy threatening letters -- it will need to keep the public and voters focused on how he's running the Postal Service and hold him, the Justice Department and the White House accountable.

About The Writer

Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion

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