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Post office turmoil could affect the Nov. 3 election

Post office turmoil could affect the Nov. 3 election

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Postmaster General Louis DeJoy let the public know in a Friday statement brimming with business-speak that he’s overhauling management of the U.S. Postal Service “to capture operating efficiencies by providing clarity and economies of scale that will allow us to reduce our cost base and capture new revenue.”

DeJoy, who lacks much of the experience one might hope for in an executive handed the reins of the country’s biggest retail operation, also said he wanted to “serve the American people ... by maintaining and operating our unique, vital and resilient infrastructure.”

DeJoy, a major fundraiser for President Donald Trump, didn’t say he was trying “to capture the Postal Service to better serve the White House’s needs in an election year in which mail-in voting will play a pivotal role.” But he very well might have.

In a different political moment, taking DeJoy at his word and giving him more time to settle into his new job would be fair-minded and reasonable. These are hardly normal times, however. A pandemic, an economic meltdown, street protests and a presidential election all are afoot, and DeJoy’s recent machinations look as much like bare-knuckle political trench warfare as anything else.

DeJoy’s press release didn’t offer extensive details about the impact of his changes beyond naming new people to leadership positions and reorienting the Postal Service’s organizational chart around three new operating units. The Washington Post, which also got its hands on an internal memo DeJoy sent to Postal Service employees, reported on Friday evening that the changes reassign or displace 23 executives, centralize DeJoy’s power and de-emphasize “decades of institutional postal knowledge.”

There’s a broader backdrop for all of this. The White House has spent months trying to undermine voters’ faith in mail-in voting, with the president and Attorney General William Barr routinely and incorrectly stating that it’s riddled with fraud. Politico reported on Saturday that the effort goes well beyond the Oval Office.

Trump’s presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee have filed about 40 court cases in 17 states aiming to stymie voting rule changes that would make it easier for voters to use mail-in ballots, Politico reported. A dozen staff attorneys and several dozen outside lawyers are handling the court battles. Politico said that Trump’s aides have been contemplating other actions the president could take to undermine mail-in voting, including “directing the Postal Service to not deliver certain ballots to stopping local officials from counting them after Election Day.”

Trump said on Aug. 3 that he might issue an executive order curtailing the use of mail-in ballots. “I have the right to do it,” he told reporters at the White House. “We haven’t gotten there yet. We’ll see what happens.”

I suspect Trump wouldn’t be so obsessed with mail-in voting if he wasn’t trailing badly in election polls. But, of course, he is. Mail-in voting used to have bipartisan support, but given the possibility that it may turn out more Democratic voters in a pandemic year marked by lockdowns, that’s no longer the case. And if an executive order or court victories don’t restrict mail-in voting, Trump can be expected to enlist the Postal Service directly given his history of mucking about in the affairs of other federal agencies for self-interested reasons.

After all, Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spent the spring trying to use federal bailout money as leverage to gain greater control over the Postal Service’s operations. In July, two month after DeJoy was appointed postmaster general, he made operational changes, including shortening post office hours and eliminating overtime for postal workers, that have contributed to a slowdown mail delivery. Slower mail delivery isn’t helpful in an election year when mail-in voting is expected to surge.

Democrats have responded by sending letters demanding that DeJoy explain his various shakeups. The most recent came on Friday, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Rep. Gerald Connelly, a Virginia Democrat, and six other legislators wrote the Postal Service’s inspector general asking for an audit of DeJoy’s actions. While writing letters has its place, Election Day is only three months away and the White House is clearly trying to find a way to refashion the Postal Service into a political weapon.

There’s no question that the Postal Service needs fresh thinking and fresh approaches to its problems. DeJoy has insisted that all of the steps he’s taking are about doing just that. He also says that he remains above the fray and beyond the president’s sway.

“While I certainly have a good relationship with the president of the United States, the notion that I would ever make decisions concerning the Postal Service at the direction of the president, or anyone else in the administration, is wholly off base,” he told the Postal Service’s board of governors on Friday. “I serve at the pleasure of the governors of the Postal Service, a group that is bipartisan by statute and that will evaluate my performance in a nonpartisan fashion.”

We’ll see.

Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

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