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The result of the next US presidential election could be decided by the efficiency of the humble postal service.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, voting by mail has become the norm for millions of Americans, and the practice is now central to each political party’s path to the White House. As legislative battles rage across the country over laws governing the practice, new research suggests that the performance of the postal service can have a small but noticeable impact on election turnout.
Put simply, this archaic, lumbering and traditionally apolitical institution may play a crucial role in the functioning of American democracy, and on the result of a vote to appoint the most powerful person on the planet.
“Across the board, this study shows that having better postal administration makes it more likely there will be more positive voter turnout outcomes linked to all mail voting laws,” said researcher Michael Ritter, of Washington State University, who published the study in the Election Law Journal this summer.
“Postal service administration is important for shaping the ability of people to vote by mail,” Mr Ritter told The Independent. “For example, it can capture, you know, how easily or readily people are able to receive election mail at their homes, how quickly that mail is transported to distribution facilities and to election ballot counting sites,” he added.
After analysing election data from 2012 through 2020, Ritter found that more efficient postal services helped increase the likelihood of voting by 3.42 per cent in some areas. The increase may appear small, but when taking into account that Joe Biden won a total of seven swing states by less than 3 per cent, an argument can be made that the difference is crucial.
“It may not seem huge, but for individuals who sometimes are on the fence about voting by mail or not voting at all, it can tip the balance,” Ritter said.
The study highlights just one of the myriad ways the postal service, and the laws governing voting by mail more generally, will be crucial in deciding who takes the White House in 2024.
All of this is relatively new territory for the postal service, which has existed in some form since 1775. Voting by mail, too, has been around for hundreds of years, beginning during the Civil War.
After years of unproblematic use of mail-in voting by both parties, the practice became a dividing line in 2020, when record numbers of people chose to cast their ballot by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. Democrats were casting their ballots by mail at a far greater rate than Republicans. Seeing this imbalance as a threat to his election chances, then-president Donald Trump sought to throttle and suppress it by flooding the zone with a litany of conspiracy theories and unfounded claims about fraud.
“RIGGED 2020 ELECTION: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!” he wrote on Twitter in July 2020, months before the election, in one of dozens of similar claims that continued throughout the campaign and after the vote.
Mr Trump even went so far as to withhold funding for the postal service in an explicit effort to throttle its ability to process the ballots.
Nick Casselli, a mail worker union president in Philadelphia, told The Independent at the time: “This is a deliberate attempt to affect the upcoming presidential election. He needs the American public to turn on the postal service. That ruins the ballots in November.”
The postal service, as a result, was turned into a political football. There was even talk of a wider conspiracy, as reforms implemented by the Trump-appointed postmaster general, Louis DeJoy — a major Republican donor — caused mail to pile up across the country as the election loomed.
When the dust had settled on the 2020 presidential election, the Postal Service considered their role a success story. It said some 135 million ballots were delivered to and from voters in the general election, and 99.89 per cent were delivered within seven days.
Mr Trump’s efforts to curtail voting by mail largely failed, but that fight is by no means over, and 2024 may yet see a repeat of that pressure. Republican lawmakers across the US are seeking to limit its use in future elections, often repeating Mr Trump’s unfounded concerns over voter fraud. This is despite there being no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, by mail or otherwise.
In Pennsylvania, voting rights groups are fighting a Republican effort to block the counting of mail-in ballots with erroneous dates. Republicans in North Carolina may soon enact a law that will shorten the time allowed for voters to mail their ballot, to name a few.
Democrats, meanwhile, have sought to expand access to mail-in voting. New York governor Kathy Hochul signed a bill last week that allows any registered New York voter to submit an early ballot in the mail. Michigan also enacted measures to improve tracking procedures for mail-in ballots.
Those fights are likely to intensify as election day 2024 approaches.
Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at voting rights group Common Cause, told The Independent that following an expansion in voting by mail during the pandemic, a number of states are making access to it more difficult.
“What you’ve seen over the last few years is a consistent narrowing of the ability to access a mail-in ballot,” she said.
“There are cases now outlawing sending a vote by mail application to to a voter. Some states have changed the deadline or are trying to change the deadline by which a ballot must be received. So it is chipping away at various parts of the process throughout in an attempt to limit people’s access to it,” she added.
Joanna Lydgate, CEO of voting rights group States United Democracy Center, said the last few years had seen “a growing movement to change those state election laws to restrict things like mail-in voting and funding for election offices.”
“These are solutions in search of a problem. Ultimately, attempts to limit mail-in voting are just attempts to limit voting. But voters need to pay attention, because the decisions being made today in the states will determine how the 2024 election is run,” she told The Independent.
The postal service, meanwhile, insists that is ready and able to handle the challenges ahead, telling The Independent in a statement that it was “fully committed and actively working to handle the anticipated increase in Election Mail volume over the coming election year.”
The statement added: “We project that the volume of Election Mail will still be less than our holiday season volume which we routinely deliver.”
In other words, if they can safely deliver all those letters to Santa, handling the presidential election shouldn’t be a problem.