Trump Is Hobbling the Mail the Old-Fashioned Way

The president and his allies are bringing politics back into the Postal Service—and putting the election at risk.

Paul Thompson / Stringer / Getty / The Atlantic

On the eve of a highly consequential presidential election, when millions of citizens are eager to protect their health by voting by mail, the United States Postal Service bears the burden of expediting a secure election free of partisan tampering. But the officials with power over the agency appear bent on doing exactly the opposite—that is, returning to an old tradition of politicizing the post.

President Donald Trump has denigrated Americans’ favorite government service as “a joke,” and his administration has explored ways to limit mail-in voting—which the president has baselessly characterized as disadvantageous to Republicans. In May, the Postal Service’s board of governors, whose members are appointed by the president, named as postmaster general the Trump ally Louis DeJoy, a North Carolina businessman and major Republican donor who lacks postal experience but, according to news reports, has significant investments in companies that compete or do business with the Postal Service. Mail began backing up after DeJoy ordered cuts in overtime costs, ostensibly to address the agency’s acute financial troubles. On Friday, he announced a reorganization plan that, as The Washington Post described it, “reassigned or displaced” 23 executives, including the top two who oversee day-to-day operations.

If Republicans wanted to limit voter turnout and raise doubts about the election’s integrity, creating chaos within the Postal Service and undermining its independence would be an efficient way to pursue that goal.

Past efforts to politicize the mail service were overt. According to the “spoils system” that President Andrew Jackson—whom Trump admires most among his predecessors—established soon after his election in 1828, the party that won the White House gained the right to award tens of thousands of postal jobs to its supporters, thus securing their loyalty and zeal. The postmaster general—inevitably a political crony and fixer eager to do the president’s bidding—became a Cabinet member who oversaw this immense patronage scheme. To shore up his political base, Jackson replaced the postmaster general he inherited from his rival, President John Quincy Adams, with wheeler-dealers who executed a “rotation in office” policy. Jackson’s inexperienced Democratic loyalists replaced many seasoned postal workers who had supported Adams. The strategy also markedly worsened service in the anti-Jacksonian Northeast. Though the spoils system was reviled through the decades by defenders of good government, attempts to reform it—such as the Pendleton Act of 1883, which, among other things, mandated merit-based employment for clerks and carriers in certain post offices—failed to uproot the patronage that supported America’s two major political parties for nearly a century and a half.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon finally ended the spoils system by signing the Postal Reorganization Act. The law turned what had been the Post Office Department into the modern USPS. This government-business hybrid is run by a board of governors nominated by the president and confirmed with the Senate’s advice and consent, and a professional postmaster general chosen by that board.

Recent precedent had favored candidates with a demonstrable commitment to the agency and its work. Of the five people who have held the top office this century, four rose through the ranks: William Henderson (1998–2001), John Potter (2001–2010), Patrick Donahoe (2010–2015), and Meaghan Brennan (2015–2020). The sole exception has been DeJoy, a former logistics-industry CEO who gave millions of dollars to the Republican Party, including the Trump campaign.

As the president’s criticism of the Postal Service mounted this spring, his administration worked to undercut the independence of the agency, which was seeking an emergency loan from a pandemic-relief package approved by Congress in March. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin sought to use the loan as leverage to obtain what the Post described as “sweeping operational control of the Postal Service”—including power over senior-personnel decisions, package pricing, and service contracts with third-party shippers. (Eventually, the Treasury approved a loan subject to less stringent conditions.)

Meanwhile, the new postmaster general is hampering the Postal Service’s ability to operate. In his short time in office, DeJoy has alarmed postal customers and employees alike by cutting pay for overtime work, such as sorting mail and making extra trips, that is sometimes required to ensure prompt delivery. The resulting service slowdowns of a day or more have earned DeJoy the nickname “Louie DeLay.” Far more serious, they can undermine the public’s confidence in the Postal Service’s ability to deliver blank ballots to citizens and then return them to electoral authorities securely and speedily.

Despite the president’s assertion that voting by mail will lead to a “RIGGED Election,” no evidence indicates that the process is anything other than secure, convenient for citizens, and cost-effective for governments. All states have some form of mail-in voting, which is a universal practice in Colorado, Washington, Utah, Oregon, and Hawaii. Far from being a joke, the USPS will be perfectly able to carry out its election duties—unless it is hobbled from within. The service’s network of more than 31,000 post offices, stretching from Alaska to Florida, processes some 500 million pieces of mail daily, and much more during the winter holiday season. More than half a million postal workers—40 percent of whom are women, and nearly 40 percent people of color—deliver mail to every address in the country six days a week.

The financial crisis now threatening the Postal Service has deep roots. The trouble began after 2001, as email shrank the volume of first-class letter mail, and was compounded by the disastrous Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006. The law restricted the USPS’s ability to offer new services and adjust its pricing to reflect its costs, and worse, required it to pre-fund its retirees’ health-care benefits far into the future, saddling it with billions of dollars in payments.

The cuts that DeJoy has ordered in response to the financial crisis have alarmed lawmakers of both parties. At a time when the government is bailing out airlines, fast-food restaurants, fossil-fuel producers, and other businesses hurt by the pandemic, Congress must accept that the USPS really is too big to fail, and supply it with immediate emergency funding as well—without conditions that subject it to micromanagement by political appointees. Then legislators must restore its health by enacting commonsense reforms, including forgiving the service’s current debt to the Treasury and allowing it to restructure the funding of its retirees’ health-care benefits. The service should also be allowed to raise its prices modestly, cut costly inessentials such as Saturday letter delivery, and bargain more effectively with unions.

Throughout its long history as our democracy’s unifier and equalizer, the postal system has responded flexibly to America’s needs. In 1792, the Founders used it to create an informed electorate by delivering cheap, uncensored newspapers to the far-flung citizenry. At the turn of the 20th century, the post office protected the American public from rapacious transportation and banking monopolies by providing low-cost parcel post and postal banking.

For all its challenges, the mail has been the central nervous system of American democracy for 245 years, and the coronavirus pandemic has made it more essential now than at any time in recent memory. Even amid partisanship and fragmentation, our national delivery system—still the best in the world—must continue to support the democratic process. The growing demand for voting by mail should be a reason to shore up the Postal Service and shield it from political interference, not force it to a halt.