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Future of Democracy Depends on Postal Reform

If elections are going to happen by mail, we need to be more prepared next time

It’s Election Day and all eyes are on the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) as it tries to deliver completed ballots efficiently.

More than 30 percent of voters expect to vote by mail this year, and America’s mail carrier seems more than up to the task of dealing with the influx of enveloped ballots. Preliminary data shows that the USPS is prioritizing election mail above first-class mail and is processing more than 97 percent of election mail in a timely manner. This commendable performance cannot hide the fact that the USPS faces significant long-term issues that could hamper future elections if left unaddressed. Postal reform is more critical than ever to ensure that vote-by-mail remains a viable option for the electorate for decades to come. 

For now, the USPS remains in fine condition to expeditiously deliver election mail by November 3. On October 27, The Washington Post reported, “The Postal Service has processed 523 million pieces of election mail, a historic volume of ballots, ballot applications, voter information pamphlets, and other items.” This total is up more than 60 percent from the 2016 total, but still a drop in the bucket compared to overall mail volumes.

In 2019, the USPS delivered more than 142 billion pieces of mail. Even if total election mail volume doubled in total volume on Election Day, it would still be a fraction of a percent of the USPS’ annual haul. And, contrary to the postal alarmists of the world, America’s mail carrier has enough money—for now—to manage election mail. The USPS has around $14 billion in cash on hand, the most in more than a decade and more than enough to keep the agency running through mid-2021. 

The real problem lies in the not so far off future.

The agency has more than $160 billion in unfunded liabilities, owing to years of financial mismanagement and a changing business climate. The rise of digital services means that people simply aren’t buying as many stamps as they used to. And, postal dysfunction hasn’t been helping matters.

To get mail across the country and to local post offices, the agency contracts out transportation services to middle-mile truckers, but these private operators regularly overbill the agency for their services. According to the Inspector General (IG), there’s no standardized and centralized process for reporting irregularities in middle-mile service performance. Meanwhile, post offices aren’t doing their due diligence in reporting irregularities, and regularly fail to share reimbursement paperwork with other offices. 

According to the Taxpayers Protection Alliance’s report on postal reform, the USPS could save more than $1 billion per year through more consistent reporting, auditing, and information-sharing. Additionally, the struggling agency has far more processing equipment and collection boxes than it needs. And, this excess network capacity diverts critical manpower away from tasks such as handling election mail. Even before Postmaster General (PMG) Louis DeJoy’s term, the agency was removing more than 2,000 collection boxes a year in order to allocate labor more efficiently. But these efforts didn’t go far enough. 

The IG noted in 2016 that “removing unnecessary collection boxes throughout the Eastern Area would eliminate 73,043 workhours over the next 5 years,” saving millions of dollars. PMG DeJoy wisely ramped up removals of unneeded equipment, but an outcry fueled by postal misinformation forced him to halt these needed changes. Additionally, courts have overstepped their bounds and taken to micromanaging the beleaguered agency.

Unless PMG DeJoy is given the green light by politicians and the judiciary to continue consolidating the USPS’ unruly infrastructure network, losses will continue to mount. And if the agency continues to systematically overpay contractors, it’ll be more and more difficult to keep controllable losses under control. Postal reform is needed now more than ever to ensure that the USPS is in top shape for future elections. Millions of voters—and taxpayers—are counting on a lean, mean mail delivering machine that works for everyone. 

Ross Marchand is a senior fellow for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. Follow him on Twitter @RossAMarchand

Ross Marchand is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. He focuses on a range of issues, ranging from health-care reform to internet regulation to Postal Service-related issues. Ross is an alumnus of the Mercatus Center MA Fellowship at George Mason University, where he received his MA in economics in 2016. He has interned for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, analyzing and blogging on a variety of public policy issues.
Catalyst articles by Ross Marchand