US Postal Service (USPS) consumers are seeing declining service standards. They know their packages don’t arrive on time. What they may not realize, however, is that this may also cost them their vote.
38 states require absentee ballots to be received by election day. However, USPS rules have changed and that first class letter mail, like absentee ballots which were once consistently delivered the next day in the same community, are now routed through distant regional processing centers. These centers are often in different states and hundreds of miles away.
If that isn’t bad enough, despite setting more relaxed quality and delivery standards, a recent post office inspector general’s report showed a 51% increase in mail processing delays. In short, USPS has lowered the bar for success and then dramatically missed the new lower bar.
The problems stem from the role of the USPS, the organization tasked with distributing and returning completed ballots to election officials. Delivering letter mail items is a part of the USPS’ government-granted monopoly, which leaves mail customers without any other option for service. The monopoly, in its own right, isn’t inherently troubling. However, it does leave the postal service running the risk of burdening consumers if standards of performance are not adequately met, because there is simply no available alternative service. In fact, many states even prohibit FedEx, UPS or in person delivery of absentee ballots.
For USPS, these potentially troubling circumstances have long been a reality. The quasi-government organization continues to fall short on its core monopoly services. Specifically, the USPS continues to post deteriorating performance standards for all classes of standard and first class mail, which has led to well-documented and adverse consequences. These delivery failures have caused bills to not be paid on time, have left patients unable to receive the medication they need, and a myriad of other troubling circumstances.
These weaknesses in reliability and performance are notable, but unfortunately frequent. In recent weeks across the country, many have witnessed a rising number of cases of lost mail, stolen mail, trashed mail, and mail fraud. Concerns have risen steadily to the point that USPS is advising voters to mail in ballots early to help root out further problems.
It is unfortunate that these matters are not part of the Postal Reform discussion in Congress. House leaders, including Government Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and the Committee’s Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland), have regrettably ushered through the Postal Reform Bill of 2016, which side-steps too many systemic problems. Instead of requiring stringent mandates on the mail performance that consumers need and expect, the legislation supports the continued expansion of experimental nonregulated services, and potentially leaves taxpayers on the hook to keep the organization afloat as it continues to lose billions of dollars each year.
Without proper changes that will allow the agency to properly serve Americans, concerns will only grow for those planning on mailing their ballots come November. Mail-in ballots are at the mercy of the defective postal service. Its current systemic inadequacies are sure to result in the late delivery of thousands of ballots in each state or cause them to be lost in the mail all together, leaving many votes uncounted.
Leaders in Congress and the Oversight Committee need to delineate and enforce better delivery standards and implement genuine reforms within any legislation effort. This also means requiring USPS to become the self-sufficient, profit-producing organization that it can be by focusing simply on quality letter mail service.
Given that USPS’ monopoly standard mail products cover their operating costs by significant margins, the agency must get its act straight and start delivering (on time) for first class mail customers. Moving ahead on postal reform will ultimately require leaders in Congress to put forward institutional reforms to replace the current insufficient proposal. Actual reform is critical – our democracy depends on it.