If Republicans wanted to limit voter turnout and raise doubts about the election’s integrity, creating chaos within the Postal Service and undermining its independence would be an efficient way to pursue that goal.
Past efforts to politicize the mail service were overt. According to the “spoils system” that President Andrew Jackson—whom Trump admires most among his predecessors—established soon after his election in 1828, the party that won the White House gained the right to award tens of thousands of postal jobs to its supporters, thus securing their loyalty and zeal. The postmaster general—inevitably a political crony and fixer eager to do the president’s bidding—became a Cabinet member who oversaw this immense patronage scheme. To shore up his political base, Jackson replaced the postmaster general he inherited from his rival, President John Quincy Adams, with wheeler-dealers who executed a “rotation in office” policy. Jackson’s inexperienced Democratic loyalists replaced many seasoned postal workers who had supported Adams. The strategy also markedly worsened service in the anti-Jacksonian Northeast. Though the spoils system was reviled through the decades by defenders of good government, attempts to reform it—such as the Pendleton Act of 1883, which, among other things, mandated merit-based employment for clerks and carriers in certain post offices—failed to uproot the patronage that supported America’s two major political parties for nearly a century and a half.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon finally ended the spoils system by signing the Postal Reorganization Act. The law turned what had been the Post Office Department into the modern USPS. This government-business hybrid is run by a board of governors nominated by the president and confirmed with the Senate’s advice and consent, and a professional postmaster general chosen by that board.
Recent precedent had favored candidates with a demonstrable commitment to the agency and its work. Of the five people who have held the top office this century, four rose through the ranks: William Henderson (1998–2001), John Potter (2001–2010), Patrick Donahoe (2010–2015), and Meaghan Brennan (2015–2020). The sole exception has been DeJoy, a former logistics-industry CEO who gave millions of dollars to the Republican Party, including the Trump campaign.
The financial crisis now threatening the Postal Service has deep roots. The trouble began after 2001, as email shrank the volume of first-class letter mail, and was compounded by the disastrous Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006. The law restricted the USPS’s ability to offer new services and adjust its pricing to reflect its costs, and worse, required it to pre-fund its retirees’ health-care benefits far into the future, saddling it with billions of dollars in payments.
Throughout its long history as our democracy’s unifier and equalizer, the postal system has responded flexibly to America’s needs. In 1792, the Founders used it to create an informed electorate by delivering cheap, uncensored newspapers to the far-flung citizenry. At the turn of the 20th century, the post office protected the American public from rapacious transportation and banking monopolies by providing low-cost parcel post and postal banking.
For all its challenges, the mail has been the central nervous system of American democracy for 245 years, and the coronavirus pandemic has made it more essential now than at any time in recent memory. Even amid partisanship and fragmentation, our national delivery system—still the best in the world—must continue to support the democratic process. The growing demand for voting by mail should be a reason to shore up the Postal Service and shield it from political interference, not force it to a halt.