Election 2020

Don't Blame Donald Trump if the Post Office Loses Your Vote

Even if all presidential votes were cast through the mail and sent on the same day, they would amount to 30 percent of a single day's volume.


By now you've probably heard that President Donald Trump and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy "are sabotaging democracy in plain sight" through a mix of nefarious ploys, ranging from removing "blue Post Office drop boxes" to scrapping mail-sorting machines to allegedly mandating a slowdown in delivering the mail. The upshot of the chatter is that Trump, fearful of losing the election in November, is supposedly doing everything possible to block what is expected to be a historically high level of mail-in ballots. (Meanwhile, the president has been stoking his own conspiracy theories by preemptively declaring the upcoming vote "the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history.")

The truth is far less incendiary, though still troubling. As USA Today concluded in a fact-check of various rumors floating around,

it is false to say mail is intentionally being slowed, despite reports that a new USPS [United States Postal Service] system might inherently cause delays. The Trump administration said the president did not direct USPS to slow down its deliveries, and USA TODAY found no evidence of that claim being true either.

In any case, as NPR and other outlets have reported, the president has said he'd sign a bill including more funding for the Postal Service, including aid dedicated to processing any surge in mail-in votes.

Here's a little bit of math that should give voters succor. In 2016, about 140 million total votes were cast in the presidential election, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, with "nearly 24 percent…cast using by-mail absentee voting." Due to Covid-19 concerns, the percentage of mail-in and absentee ballots will almost surely be higher this time around—possibly as high as 70 percent of all votes cast. Assume, for the sake of argument, that the same number of votes will be cast this year as in 2016. Even if all voters used the mail and posted their ballots on exactly the same day, that would comprise only 30 percent of the amount of mail the USPS says it processes every single day.

So if the USPS screws up delivering votes in a timely and efficient manner this fall, it won't be because of any sinister actions by the White House. It will be because of longstanding, well-documented managerial and cultural problems that gave rise to such stock portrayals of letter carriers as Seinfeld's Newman and Cheers' Cliff Clavin. As Reason's Eric Boehm has documented, it may take weeks or even months for a final tally of all votes this fall; depending on the closeness of the race on Election Day, that waiting period may be excrutiating to live through. But that has less to do with the USPS and more to do with local and state voting boards.

For those who are interested in the post office's chronically bad performance and "unsustainable" situation, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has produced a long list of studies on where the problems come from and how they might be addressed. The short version is that Congress has blocked all sorts of serious reforms to an operation that has seen a 33 percent decline in mail volume since 2006.

Related video: From 2017, here's "Why We Should Privatize the Postal Service."