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Mail-in voting combines with Postal Service woes to form a new political divide

By Tom Baxter

The Republican State Leadership Committee, the branch of the national party which assists GOP candidates in state legislative and down-ballot races, was out last weekend with the reddest of red-meat appeals to its base.

“Democrats are planning to rig elections across the country with voter fraud schemes like ballot harvesting, unreliable vote by mail, and liberal voter registration laws. (Your name here) – we CANNOT let the radical Left cheat their way into office in November,” says the email appeal to sign a petition, usually the first step toward an appeal for money.

This pitch goes straight to one of the sharpest — and newest — fracture lines in American politics.

In the past, both parties have accused the other of rigging elections, sometimes with good reason. What’s new is the rapid increase in mail-in, absentee and early voting, and the rising Republican mistrust of all of these. (Ballot harvesting — the collection of absentee ballots by someone who isn’t a relative — is part of the larger controversy over voting by mail.)

Not very long ago, Republicans prided themselves on nailing down their votes as early as possible, and regularly won the absentee vote by solid majorities over Democrats. That was when this was a small slice of the total vote. Now, Oregon, Washington and Colorado vote entirely by mail. Polls indicate the idea is growing in popularity across the country, with the pandemic as an added propellant.

This puts Republican secretaries of state, like Georgia’s Brad Raffensperger, in ticklish position. Raffensperger took a giant step in the direction of mail-in voting by sending absentee ballot applications for the June 9 primary to every voter in the state — probably the only thing he could have done to insure full participation in an election which has already been postponed twice due to the pandemic. In a nod to Republican concerns, he also announced the creation of a task force to inspect the absentee vote for any signs of fraud.

Besides making the alternative more dangerous, the pandemic has added another twist to the controversy over mail-in voting: the possibility that the U.S. Postal Service could collapse before the next election, leaving no means for mail-in votes to be mailed in.

President Trump has threatened to block a $10 billion emergency loan to the USPS unless it quadruples the price for package deliveries, particularly those sent by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, also owns the Washington Post. The USPS was struggling even before the pandemic cut into its first class and commercial deliveries, but package deliveries have been the service’s strongest sector. Analysts believe the increase Trump is demanding would drive that profitable business to UPS and FedEx, and speed the demise of the USPS.

Trump’s threat has generated plenty of red meat for the other side in the email political wars.

“(Your name here), if we don’t have a winning strategy to save the USPS, we could lose it and a National Vote-by-Mail option will be ruined! So we selected smart Democrats from your area to take our strategy survey,” according to a Monday email blast from Let America Vote. Surveys, like petitions, are usually antecedent to appeals for money.

The White House has already gotten Congress to come down from a $13 billion direct grant to the USPS, so it can back off Trump’s threat and still claim a win. That would be preferable, at the onset of a recession, to putting 600,000 postal employees out of work. Or, if USPS blinked and agreed to the increase, imposing a broadly inflationary measure on the financially strained and package-dependent American consumer. A couple of hours after making the threat, Trump tacitly acknowledged this reality.

“I will never let our Post Office fail. It has been mismanaged for years, especially since the advent of the internet and modern-day technology,” Trump tweeted. “The people that work there are great, and we’re going to keep them happy, healthy, and well!” https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/494556-trump-pledges-support-for-postal-service-after-threatening-its

There’s historical irony in this face-off with USPS, as well. For a long time, “post office Republicans” were about the only Republicans there were in this part of the country. The term referred to the federal patronage which the Republican majority in Washington was able to hand out in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Recipients of federal jobs like postmaster were the core of the minority party in the South, but as delegates to the Republican National Convention they often played a major role. As time went by the term was often used to refer to African-American Republicans.

Those Republicans of yore would, no doubt, be reassured by the president’s tweet.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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