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A simple explanation for USPS mess

Demonstrators gather in Midland, Mich., on Aug. 11

Demonstrators gather in Midland, Mich., on Aug. 11 to rally against changes to the Postal Service that have since been suspended. Credit: AP/Katy Kildee

Last week, the president of the United States appeared to have a James Bond villain moment in which he blatantly laid out a dastardly plan to blow up American democracy — to a television audience, no less. In a Fox Business interview, Donald Trump said the House pandemic relief bill was being held up largely because it authorizes extra funding for the U.S. Postal Service, including $3.5 billion for election-related work.

Trump reiterated his claim that universal mail-in voting means rampant fraud and seemed to gloat about stopping it: “Now, if we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting, they just can’t have it.”

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden had charged in June that Trump was trying to “cut off money for the post office so they cannot deliver mail-in ballots.” Now, Trump was confirming it.

The resulting uproar amplified disturbing reports of post office shenanigans, including mail delays due to overtime cuts and delivery reductions ordered by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a GOP and Trump donor who took the post in June. The USPS has warned election officials in 46 states that their vote-by-mail schedules could cause votes to arrive late, partly because ballots sent at bulk rate will no longer be expedited. And mail-sorting machines at postal facilities were being removed and even destroyed, which some worry could kneecap election mail processing.

To many Democrats, it’s election-rigging in plain sight. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) have urged an FBI investigation; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called an emergency congressional hearing.

Much ado about nothing, say most conservatives — just efficiency improvements at the money-losing Postal Service and paranoid panic-mongering among liberals.

Separating news from spin is a tough job in this Disinformation Age. Yet after looking at several detailed reports, including from The Atlantic and The Washington Post, I’m not convinced there’s anything sinister happening at the Postal Service. Given reduced mail volume due to private and online alternatives, restructuring proposals aren’t new; neither is removal of space-hogging, expensive-to-maintain sorting machines. The warning letters to states began in May, before DeJoy’s tenure — and their purpose was to let election officials enact remedies, which doesn’t gibe with a vote-suppressing ploy.

At least some of the alarm has definitely veered into paranoia — such as the viral photos of locked mailboxes, a fairly common after-hours mail theft prevention measure.

Voting rights experts also stress that, extra funds or no, the Postal Service has the money and the capacity to handle votes by mail. The funding request was to cover pandemic-related shortfalls.

Nonetheless, there are enough valid concerns to merit inquiry — and answers from DeJoy, who is scheduled to testify before Congress on Friday and Monday. DeJoy has already announced that the policies causing these concerns will be suspended until after the election. It’s the right move, even if the suspicions were groundless. To paraphrase the old Barry Goldwater line, extra watchfulness in defense of democracy is no vice.

If this is a false alarm, don’t blame paranoid Democrats. Blame a president who has made paranoia a national mood, attacked mail-in voting over fictions of people mailing stacks of ballots, and bragged about using his power to thwart absentee voting amid a pandemic.

This isn’t some clever scheme to gaslight his enemies. (While some Democratic voters may be demoralized by the scaremongering, far more will be mobilized.) The likely explanation is much simpler: Trump can’t be an authoritarian strongman because of political constraints, but at least he’ll play one on TV.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.

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