Two days of congressional hearings on the Postal Service—the Senate’s relatively sedate three-hour session on Friday, the House’s stormier five-and-a-half-hour session on Monday—have given us a remarkable glimpse into the checks and balances inherent in a public political system. Moreover, we have also seen the challenges facing the Postal Service as it evolves from being the system that delivers the U.S. mail to the system that will soon be delivering much of the U.S. vote.
In the here and now, politics are so polarized that it’s unlikely many minds have been changed by the hearings. Congressional Democrats, of course, blitzed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, while Republicans generally stood by him. (RELATED: Trump Critics Push Conspiracy Theories About Postal Service Mailboxes)
Still, real change is coming — proving, for better or worse, that the system is capable of more than just talk and gridlock. The Democratic House voted a $25 billion bailout for the USPS, and, most likely, the Republican Senate will also agree to at least some new aid.
So yes, the USPS is likely to emerge from this crisis better funded than it has been in a long time. To be sure, the long slide in the actual business of the USPS is likely to continue; the amount of mail handled by the Postal Service has shrunk by a third since 2006. At the same time, if vote-by-mail is the new standard, the USPS will now be seen as a vital part of our election “infrastructure”—and that entitles it to a whole new status.
In fact, according to MIT’s Election Lab, in the last midterm elections long before Covid, 18% of Americans voted by mail. This year, in the midst of the pandemic, that percentage has increased (in one New York City primary election, a whopping 69% of voters voted by mail) and it’s likely to continue to increase as the parties accelerate their vote-by-mail efforts. According to The Washington Post, 83% of Americans live in states where they can vote by mail, if they wish.
So if many (or even most) Americans are voting by mail, all eyes should turn to the integrity of the system, including the role of the USPS.
It turns out that here, the USPS record is not unblemished. For instance, we might recall this headline in The Washington Post from July 19, 2017: “Postal Service broke law in pushing time off for workers to campaign for Clinton, investigation finds.” As the article detailed, postal officials, under pressure from Democratic-dominated unions, allowed USPS employees to take off unpaid time to work on Democratic campaigns, including that of Hillary Clinton. As the report noted, this time-off came “even over the objections of local post office managers who said they would be understaffed.” Yet these managers, striving to protect the quality of service, were rolled. In the words of Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, “When supervisors get the message, ‘You have to let these people off,’ that’s a pretty clear political operation.” (RELATED: Postmaster To Suspend USPS Changes Until After Election)
That’s discouraging, yet we might also point out that the system worked, albeit only after the election. As the Post article detailed, the investigation into dubious time off was conducted by two units within the USPS, the Inspector General and the Office of Special Counsel. To be sure, it helped enormously that Republicans in Congress were interested in this topic, as congressional oversight is a vital part of any system of checks and balances.
(As an aside, it’s worth bearing in mind that the USPS has these two scrutinizing offices embedded within itself. We might observe that if the USPS were ever to be radically downsized or even privatized, these offices would be exactly the sort of “bureaucratic overhead” that a budget-cutter would cut. If so, then a valuable self-correcting mechanism would be lost.)
In fact, the honest delivery of the mail is part of the USPS’s DNA. Way back in 1792, when Congress established the Post Office, it further decreed fines and prison sentences for those who “unlawfully detain, delay, or open, any letter.” Indeed, to this day, USPS employees take an oath to protect the sanctity of the mail. Admittedly, any oath can be broken, and yet at least the USPS has a heritage, and the mechanisms, for enforcing good behavior.
In the meantime, President Donald Trump is sounding the alarm about the 2020 balloting, including mail-in balloting. As he warned on Friday, “You’ll never have an election count on November 3,” adding, “You’re not going to be able to know the end of this election, in my opinion, for weeks, months, maybe never.” Is Trump right? We’ll know in about 10 weeks. And if the system does break down—or if it, uh, over-performs for the Democrats—then for the sake of partisan survival, Republicans will have little choice but to put voting reform and ballot integrity among their paramount goals.
Furthermore, we should realize that vote by mail will soon face a challenge from vote by app. That is, by voting via an application on our computer or smartphone. Yes, early efforts at online voting have been a hacked failure, and yet if the whole wide world is going virtual and digital—a process “Zoomed” by the coronavirus—then it’s hard to see how voting will escape the trend. After all, even if the casting of ballots is relatively low-tech today, the actual counting of ballots is all done by computers. (RELATED: Michigan Rejects More Than 10,000 Absentee Ballots, Including Some From Voters Who Died)
So today, as well as in the future, who should manage this process? Our friends in Silicon Valley? It’s worth bearing in mind that while the USPS takes an oath to protect privacy, Silicon Valley takes an oath, in effect, to snoop on you and your data—although techies prefer to call it “sharing.”
Yes, the day will come when ballots are cast by app, or perhaps by some even newer technology. And yet when that new system comes, we’ll want to preserve and enforce as best we can the old-fashioned human values of duty and honesty. We’ll want whoever, and whatever, is doing the counting to be thoroughly enmeshed in a publicly transparent system of constitutional checks and balances.
Whatever the upshot of these latest hearings, it’s good to know that people, and laws, still have the upper hand. And who knows? Perhaps an upgraded USPS, properly structured and rightly overseen, will be a key part of a trustworthy next-gen voting system.
James P. Pinkerton, a former White House domestic policy aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, has been a Fox News contributor since 1996.
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