Explainer: Why is the US postal system caught up in an election controversy?

President Donald Trump has claimed postal voting will lead to a ‘rigged election’

Louis De Joy, a Republican donor  who was appointed by the president to lead the postal service,  has introduced several changes, including reducing overtime hours. Democrats say this is a political effort to interfere in the election. Photograph: DEPA/Michael Reynolds

Louis De Joy, a Republican donor who was appointed by the president to lead the postal service, has introduced several changes, including reducing overtime hours. Democrats say this is a political effort to interfere in the election. Photograph: DEPA/Michael Reynolds

 

What is the controversy surrounding the US postal system?

The United States Postal Service – one of the oldest institutions in the United States, one first headed by Benjamin Franklin – is in the midst of a cash and logistics crisis.

The organisation – which hasn’t broken even since 2006 – is seeking a $25 billion emergency injection of funding as part of the latest coronavirus stimulus package being discussed by Congress. The White House has so far opposed this cash injection, arguing that the organisation needs to modernise.

What is the connection with November’s election?

The crisis has coincided with increased attacks by the president, Donald Trump, on postal voting. In recent weeks he has claimed that the practice will lead to a “rigged election” and that the US will be a global “laughing stock”. Last week he explicitly linked his efforts to reduce funding to the USPS to an effort to curb mail-in voting. “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,” he said of the postal service.

Why is Trump making this argument?

Trump has tried to sow doubt about the integrity of the US electoral system for years. Following his 2016 election win, he tweeted: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

In particular he singled out California, claiming that “millions and millions” of people voted illegally. He repeated that claim on Monday on Fox News, suggesting that California is sending ballots to “everyone and their dogs” and to people who have been dead for 25 years.

Is there any evidence to suggest that mail-in voting is less reliable than regular in-person voting?

Past research says no. A study by Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt found 31 instances of voter fraud between 2000 and 2014 in a total of one billion votes. A report by the justice department under then president George W Bush came to similar conclusions.

Trump established a commission to investigate voter fraud, but it was soon abandoned – while the White House blamed states for not handing over voter data, many suspected that it had simply found insufficient evidence.

However, there have been isolated instances of voting fraud – most recently in Paterson, New Jersey. A high profile case in North Carolina in 2018 found that Republican officials had improperly collected tampered-with ballots.

There is no evidence to suggest that postal voting favours Democrats over Republicans.

The bigger issue in the US is the fact that many of those eligible to vote do not participate in the electoral system.

Is the American postal system ready for the expected rise in mail-in voting?

The US postal service warned states this month that it may not be able to confirm the delivery of mail-in ballots by the required timetable. In reality, provision for mail-in voting differs widely across the country.

Some states like Colorado and Washington have offered the vote-by-mail option to registered voters for years. Others have been slow to develop a mail-in voting system and may lack the infrastructure to cope with an increase in postal ballots.

Problems plagued New York’s primaries in June. More than 10 times the usual number of absentee votes were received – whereby a voter requests permission to vote remotely if they are unable to vote in person on election day – and final results were not announced for weeks.

Problems in the voting system are not just confined to postal voting – voters in Georgia’s primary were forced to queue for more than five hours to cast their vote. Many said they had not received absentee ballots they requested.

What are Democrats saying?

Nancy Pelosi has recalled the House of Representatives to vote on legislation to block changes at the postal service, which Democrats believe will stymie voter participation in November’s election.

Louis De Joy, a Republican donor and former logistics executive who was appointed by the president to lead the postal service, has introduced several changes, including reducing overtime hours, and in some cases removing mail sorting equipment, according to unions. Democrats say this is a political effort to interfere in the election. De Joy argues that he is improving efficiency.

What are Republicans saying?

Trump strongly backed De Joy, following protests outside his home in Washington DC at the weekend. Trump says he supports absentee voting but opposes sending mail-in ballots to everyone automatically.

New Jersey became the latest state to announce last week that it would send postal ballots to all registered voters, giving people the option to vote by mail or in person.

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