Buying stamps won't stop Trump from destroying the postal system

The call for millions to buy stamps will do little to stave off the intentional deprivation of USPS

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 14, 2020 6:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump | USPS (Salon/AP Photo/Evan Vucci/Lynne Sladky)
Donald Trump | USPS (Salon/AP Photo/Evan Vucci/Lynne Sladky)

News of a financial crisis at the United States Postal Service (USPS) has led to a public call urging Americans to buy stamps to save the country's beloved mail system and prevent the delay of mail-in ballots in November's election. Articles published in both Hyperallergic and Lifehacker promoted the idea that buying stamps could save the USPS. Back in April, before Trump began gutting the post office for political reasons, people who cared about the postal service were urging others to buy stamps in the hope that this would save it.

These calls to buy stamps appear logical in theory: the post office is being defunded by the Trump administration, and stamps give money to them.

But there's just one problem: Consumers buying stamps won't do anything to save the postal system. The postal service is not like a lemonade stand. Indeed, the problems created by Trump (and, previously, George W. Bush) are definitely structural and run much deeper.

The USPS's crisis exists largely because Trump cut funding for the post office and implemented other policies that slow mail delivery. Trump actually told Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo on Thursday that he deliberately weakened the post office, and said that move would make universal vote-by-mail impossible.

"They need that money in order to have the Post Office work, so it can take all of these millions of ballots," Trump told Bartiromo. "If they don't get those two items, that means you can't have universal mail-in voting. Because they're not equipped."

He made a similar remark during a press briefing on Wednesday, telling reporters that "They don't have the money to do the universal mail-in voting. So therefore, they can't do it, I guess. Are they going to do it even if they don't have the money?"

The partisan attack on the US postal system is certainly troubling. Indeed, the post office is a venerated institution that qualifies as one of America's signal achievements, both technologically and as an institution of effective, competent government. Moreover, Trump's claim that mail-in voting leads to fraud is provably false — one political scientist, Edie Goldenberg, found that since 2000 there have only been 204 allegations and 143 convictions for voter fraud that involved mail-in ballots out of 250 million mail-in ballots that were cast. Hence, it seems that Trump's goal is to suppress mail-in votes in the hope that it will win him the election.

The entire debacle is an unprecedented, anti-democratic backslide. Still, buying stamps is not the solution.

"Should you buy stamps to show your support for the post office? Yes. Will it generate the money the post office desperately needs? No," David Morris, the co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a longstanding advocate of the USPS, told Salon by email. "If Americans were to buy 1 billion first class stamps — about 4 per household — it would constitute a resounding vote of confidence and support. On the other hand, it would generate only about $500 million [in revenue]. Most observers believe the post office needs an immediate injection of $25 billion. Only Congress can make that happen."

Morris noted that the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives is trying to do that but is being met with opposition by Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate.

The blame for the post office's slow decay is not entirely the fault of Trump — or, for that matter, of the Republican Party. In 2006, Congress passed a bill called the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, one that required the postal service to set aside billions of dollars over a ten-year period to pay for the next 75 years of retiree health benefits. This policy, and this policy alone (one that is not used for any other governmental agency or corporation), is why the postal service has experienced such serious budgetary problems. 

After forcing the post office into a budget crisis with the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, conservatives argued that the post office should be privatized, pointing to the budgetary problems that they, ironically, created. Barring that, Republicans have demanded layoffs and service cuts, actions that do nothing to address the absurd policy that is causing the USPS' problems but go a long way toward hurting working class Americans and simultaneously making the postal service less efficient. As early as 2012, Senate Democrats — along with a then-obscure independent senator named Bernie Sanders — were urging Congress to save the postal service by ending the pre-funding mandate, permitting a refund of billions in overpayments to pension funds and encouraging the agency to diversity its services.

These approaches would make sense if the goal was to save one of America's most venerated and historically successful public institutions. It does not wash, though, if the objective is sell it to some private enterprise for the enrichment of a few at the expense of the many.

So the post office's crisis doesn't originate in a dearth of stamp purchases. But there's another, bigger problem with the premise of buying stamps to save the post office, as Morris explains. "The post office only recognizes the revenue generated by selling stamps when 'services are rendered,' which means when you use the stamps," he says. "So we'd have to initiate a massive letter writing campaign to go along with our massive stamp buying initiative."

Rebecca Brenner Graham, a PhD student at American University writing her dissertation about the USPS, made a similar point to Salon in an email.

"Movement to buy stamps: It's nice. If everyone stopped buying stamps, that would be a big problem," Graham explained. "But the movement to buy stamps alone is too little too late. It is the equivalent of individuals donating to charity in the wake of a natural disaster when the federal government needs to send FEMA or big aid packages. Of course, people should continue buying stamps and donating to charities after national disasters. But we need the federal government to act and to act big."

Critical to understanding why buying stamps alone won't work, of course, is breaking down precisely how the postal system was slowly destroyed and understanding Trump's motivations. 

"There's three main ways that he's doing this," Jason Johnson, a professor of political science and journalism at Morgan State University, told Salon. "The first is [Postmaster General Louis] DeJoy came in and eliminated 23 positions for postal executives, sort of regional directors. He just eliminated regional directors and then only replaced like a third of them. And these are people responsible for managing mail"   — the kind of work that involves directing employees, resources, mail machines and the like, Johnson explained.

Johnson noted that Trump has also weakened the postal service by eliminating overtime, which will make employees refuse to work several extra hours on top of their shifts since they won't be fairly compensated for doing so. He also pointed out that the post office usually hires extra people on September through November in advance of the Christmas season — meaning that "cutting back on overtime has no purpose other than to try to make it more difficult for post office workers to pick up mail and bring it in."

Johnson also drew attention to Trump removing 20 percent of the letter sorting machines used around the country (a decision that seemed to predate DeJoy's tenure), explaining that "these sorting machines are critical because that's what allows you to tell what size mail from another. A mail-in ballot has a very specific size."

He explained that without sorting machines, workers have to hand-sort mail, which increases the probability that mail gets mis-sorted or trapped in a flier or a magazine. "So at a technical level, you'll have fewer people getting your mail actually getting sorted in any reasonable amount of time. And then when people report those problems to their superiors, you won't have experienced people there in order to solve a problem."

Greg Palast, a journalist who has extensively covered voter fraud and voter suppression cases, told Salon by email that the problems with the post office are "only a tiny part of the problem."

"Even if the ballots get through the post office, there will be mass challenges," Palast explained. "That's what Trump's 50,000 strong volunteer army is for. It's not for voter intimidation, it's for challenging and canceling votes. Challenges to signatures — which cost 625,000 voters their vote in 2016 — quintuple that for this year. The Democrats will need an army to challenge the challenges."

He added, "As to the post office, Democrats better have plans for mass legal ballot harvesting to take vote straight into county election board officers. The post office must be bypassed at all costs which can be done in almost every state."

Some voters may see the postal situation and opt to vote in person on November 3 this year — a proposition that could pose significant health risks given the pandemic.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Donald Trump Trump United States Postal Service Usps Voter Suppression