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The 2020 election can’t afford to lose the Postal Service

As part of a photo opp, Garrett Schaffel, left, and Judy Beard, national legislative and political director of the American Postal Workers Union, carry a custom made Priority Mail box that organizers of the event said contained two million signed petitions from postal customers asking Congress to approve emergency funding for the Postal Service, Tuesday, June 23, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

The Washington Post this week got hold of a memo from the postmaster general to postal workers, telling them to leave mail behind at distribution centers, if necessary, in order to stay on their delivery schedules.

This save-it-for-tomorrow approach goes against how postal workers traditionally are trained, which is to make sure today’s mail is delivered today.

Maybe delivery people are supposed to be deterred by neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night, but we always just assumed they would be carrying today’s mail when they finally made it. The point isn’t necessary to get the mail early each day, especially if it’s yesterday’s mail, or mail from the day before, or the day before that.

As any procrastinator can attest, once a backlog starts, it tends to grow.

Critics say this new policy will drive away customers. No kidding? The Postal Service, perpetually in economic distress, already faces tough competition from private parcel delivery services. Most people stopped sending actual letters years ago, except maybe for handwritten thank-you notes to grandma, because email is so much faster.

But this is 2020, which means even more dire consequences are, by some cosmic rule, apparently, at play. In this case, it’s November’s election.

With a microscopic virus rampaging the planet, more people than ever are expected to cast their ballots this fall via mail. Even before this week’s memo, the 2020 record wasn’t good.

One day after this year’s Wisconsin primary, postal workers discovered three buckets of absentee ballots — about 1,600 in all — that were supposed to have been delivered to the nearby cities of Appleton and Oshkosh.

Thousands more voters there claim they never received absentee ballots they had requested. In some cases, filled-out ballots arrived at official counting sites without any postmark at all, making it impossible to know if they were mailed on time.

Similar, though perhaps not as widespread, problems were reported in Ohio and Texas.

If you live in Utah, you might be tempted to feel a certain smugness about all this. If there is one thing the state has nailed, it is voting by mail.

The Brookings Institution just published a state-by-state report card on this type of voting. Only seven states got an A, and Utah was at the front of the class. Here, every registered voter gets a ballot weeks in advance. No one needs to make a request. And deadlines, at least during the pandemic, are generous.

But even Utah depends on the Postal Service.

Years ago, I interviewed the postmaster general at that time, Patrick Donahoe. He described himself to me as an eternal optimist. In the face of billion-dollar losses, he said he hoped the operation would be debt free by 2018, at the latest, because of a fresh new fleet and an updated “sorting infrastructure.”

Rather than cutting back on delivery — some people wanted to cancel Saturdays, and perhaps even Tuesdays, back then — he wanted to increase Sunday parcel deliveries, make rates market-driven, and deliver more groceries.

A few years after that, I spoke with then-congressman Jason Chaffetz, who headed a committee with oversight of the Postal Service. He made the point that you can’t cut service, raise rates and hope to be competitive.

But today, the White House has said it wants to quadrupel parcel rates, and President Donald Trump’s appointed postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, apparently wants to leave some of today’s mail behind for later delivery.

The Postal Service’s best-laid plans, and even its most eternally optimistic leaders, generally collide with political realities, something those private delivery companies don’t have to confront. Unlike those other companies, the Postal Service gets special mention in the Constitution. Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7 gives Congress power “To establish Post Offices and Post Roads.”

Some may question whether that archaic 18th-century need is still valid in the 21st century.

I don’t know the definitive answer to that, but I do know that in the crazy, upside-down world of 2020, when many already are bracing for accusations of voter fraud, we’ve never needed the Postal Service to be more efficient, thorough, immediate and up-to-date.