War on the Post Office and Census – updated

Donald Trump’s anti-democratic war on the Post Office and the Census Bureau has targeted two of the oldest institutions in the country. The Post Office is older than the Constitution, tracing its roots to 1775 during the Second Continental Congress. The Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin as the first postmaster general. Just after the election of George Washington, U.S. Marshals took the first census in 1790; it is taken every ten years to determine congressional representation, inform hundreds of billions in federal funding every year, and provide data that will impact communities for the next decade.  The Post Office is explicitly authorized by the United States Constitution, and no U.S. president—other than Andrew Jackson—has tried to compromise it.
 

Trump takes Aim at the Post Office

The Post Office has been in Trump’s cross hairs since he claimed in 2017 that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton due to widespread mail-in balloting fraud.  

  • The following year, Trump targeted Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon and the Washington Post; he charged (falsely) that Bezos was “ripping off” the Post Office with “sweetheart deals” to ship Amazon’s packages.  Trump, of course, is obsessed with the negative coverage he receives in the Postas well as the New York Times
  • In 2019, Trump named three new members of the Postal Service Board of Governors, which elects the postmaster general.  In 2020, the Postal Service Board of Governors named Louis DeJoy postmaster general.  DeJoy has donated more than $2 million to the Republican Party since Trump’s election. The next day, DeJoy bought stock in FedEx and UPS, key rivals to the postal service. 
  • Trump acknowledged publicly that he opposed additional funding for the United States Postal Service (USPS) because he was seeking to limit its ability to deliver ballots in a timely manner.  In a tweet he questioned whether  the election itself should be delayed because the pandemic made it unsafe to vote in person.

Postmaster General Executes Battle Plan

Postmaster General DeJoy, appointed in June to politicize the Post Office, immediately overhauled the corporate structure of the Postal Service.  

  • DeJoy reassigned 33 top executives, thereby compromising the institutional memory of the Service.  
  • DeJoy introduced so-called cost cutting measures, which are, in fact, designed to compromise the delivery of mail prior to a presidential election. Mail-in balloting will be crucial in deciding the election.  DeJoy has forbidden postal workers to make extra trips to ensure prompt mail delivery, and has cracked down on the overtime needed routinely to clear mail backlogs.
  • DeJoy’s Post Office also is deactivating essential mail sorting machines prior to the election.  According to an article in Viceby Aaron Gordon, at least 19 machines have been removed or scheduled for removal at five processing facilities across the country, including New York, Pennsylvania, and Montana.  
  • At the same time, the Post Office has removed dozens of mail boxes in a handful of states, although a written protest from Senator Jon Tester (D/MT) may have stopped this activity at least temporarily.  In addition to the deactivation of high-speed sorters and the loss of overtime, DeJoy announced that mail-in-ballots must use  first-class postage. 

Tactical Retreat

On August 18, in response to a great deal of political opposition, DeJoy announced that he would suspend the removal of mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes. The removal of equipment and collection boxes has already caused a great deal of damage. However, DeJoy admitted he had no intention to restore sorting machines and mailboxes already removed. 

Moreover, there is still the problem of fully funding the Postal Service, and the need to investigate DeJoy’s conflict of interests.  Congress must ensure the replacement of machines and collection boxes already removed.  Congress and the public must make more noise about this issue.  The Congress should also consider making the presidential election day a holiday as it is in many European countries.

Any delays in mailing ballots would threaten our democracy, so Congress should be considering various actions. Authorities should encourage the public to use the postal service only for mail-in-ballots prior to the election.  Perhaps the Congress could suspend service for several days before the election in order to concentrate on sorting and delivering mail-in ballots.  Volunteers could assist in getting ballots to the post office or to ballot boxes.

The Second Front

In addition to the politicization of the Post Office and the attack on mail-in voting, the Trump administration has targeted the Census Bureau. The census of course is the key to representative government, which is why the Founding Fathers made the decennial enumeration of our entire population the first job of the federal government.  The census is the key to state representation in the House of Representatives and to the distribution of $1.5 trillion for various public programs.  As an editorial in the New York Times explained, “businesses rely on the data to plan investments;” “school districts rely on it to decide how many teachers to hire;” and “researchers use it to analyze the patterns of American life.”  This is just the kind of data and intelligence that Trump abhors.

According to a research professor at George Washington University, for every person missed by the 2010 census, that person’s state lost about $1000 in federal funding for Medicaid and child welfare programs. An undercount will impact People of color and non-citizens the most.  These are the programs and people that Trump and the Republican Party abhor.  

Deploying the Troops

Because of the pandemic and the difficulty of going door-to-door, this census already promises to be the least accurate  ever taken.  In June 2020, the Trump administration created two new top-level positions at the Census Bureau and filled them with political appointees, clearly empowered to reduce the count of immigrants and ethnic minorities.  Neither appointee had experience in administration, let alone census issues.  Following the appointments, the Trump administration announced that the census count would end a month earlier than originally planned, another step to assure the undercount of historically underrepresented groups.

At the start of his administration, Trump tried to add a question to the census to depress the count of non-citizens, and thus benefit Republicans and non-Hispanic Whites. The Trump administration had the audacity to argue that the Department of Commerce needed the citizenship question in order to help the Department of Justice enforce the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court stopped that act of chutzpah, recognizing that Trump’s Justice Department has never evidenced any interest in securing voting rights.

All of Trump’s acts of politicization have overwhelming support from the congressional Republican caucus.  Because of the pandemic, the House of Representatives has passed legislation to extend the census through April 202, but Senator Mitch McConnell (R/KY) predictably refuses to allow a vote. Ironically, McConnell represents one of the poorest states in the nation that would benefit the most from an accurate count.

Benjamin Franklin’s Warning

Benjamin Franklin acknowledged to an inquiring citizen in Philadelphia in 1776 that the Founding Fathers had created a republic, but it would be up to the American citizenry to maintain it.  He warned that experiments in self-government elsewhere had ended in despotism “when the people became so corrupted as to need despotic government.”  Too many authoritarians have been elected, gradually seizing power in an incremental and even legal fashion.  Well, Trump lost the  popular vote, and his illegal and presumably unconstitutional moves against the Post Office and the Census Bureau put American governance and our republic at risk.

Update:

NPR reports, “The House passed legislation on Saturday (August 22, 2020) to infuse $25 billion into the Postal Service and block operational changes that Democrats fear could hobble mail-in voting in this November’s election…The White House has threatened a veto, and the bill is not expected to advance through the Republican-controlled Senate.”

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