In the current round of local town elections, it appears that about 90 percent of the votes were sent in by mail. And if the Covid-19 pandemic continues into the fall, as expected, it seems certain that tens of millions of voters will depend on the post office to exercise the most fundamental right of citizenship.
The fact that the United States Postal Service may be endangered has made its way into a few headlines recently, quickly fading against the glare of other news. But the USPS remains severely underfunded, and that poses a real threat — not just to voting, but to the flow of information without which democracy cannot survive.
An important source of that information is local community newspapers, which depend on the mail, especially in rural areas such as the Outer Cape. According to Tonda Rush, public policy director at the National Newspaper Association, “Most weekly newspapers use the mail to a greater or lesser degree, and some almost exclusively.”
Numerous studies show that, where local newspapers are strong, politics is less polarized, and more people vote, volunteer, and run for office.
The Postal Service has asked Congress for $25 billion as the Covid-19 pandemic fast-tracked the financial challenges it has faced for the past decade. Without proper funding, the USPS claims, delivery could be interrupted as early as September. This request has so far yielded $10 billion through the CARES Act. Even so, “The future is not promising for the Postal Service,” said Max Heath, former postal consultant at the National Newspaper Association.
The USPS is an independent executive branch of government and meant to be apolitical, although since 1970 postal rates have been set by a presidentially appointed board of governors.
In May, however, President Trump appointed the first postmaster general without any history of USPS employment. Louis DeJoy is a businessman and top Republican Party donor. He also has investments in private delivery companies that compete with the USPS.
Thousands of publications nationwide will be affected if the Postal Service is forced to make cuts because of a dwindling budget, and the effects would hit rural communities hardest. Service in remote and rural areas is not profitable, but it is needed and, in fact, required.
Maureen Dalby, the first rural postal carrier for the town of Wellfleet — which offered only post office boxes until 1987 — described how perceptions of the USPS have changed as a result of privatization of express mail services. “The Postal Service was held to having to compete with companies that were taking on only the profitable area of the business, and I don’t think people ever understood that,” Dalby said. “All the glory was given to UPS and FedEx.”
At the inception of the Postal Service in 1775 by the Second Continental Congress, the Founding Fathers declared the dissemination of information to be a public good. As a result, rates for periodicals, especially for those distributed in-county, have been kept artificially low. The Postal Service, in this way, functioned as a cog in the wheel of the free press, with special consideration for local newspapers.
Advertising circulars do not qualify for these lower rates, because the USPS requires that no more than 75 percent of the content of periodicals be advertising.
While many people believe that newspapers must adapt to online platforms in the digital age, online editions of most local newspapers would not exist without the print versions to support them. What’s not always obvious to readers is that the biggest cost for newspapers is the work of reporting and editing the content, not the printing. And the most important support of those costs is print advertising. Vox reported that online advertisers favor urban publications with national reach. Local papers have not been able to make up the difference online and have suffered drastic reductions in revenue.
Jane Seagrave, publisher of the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette, confirmed that “print newspapers are still the core of our revenue base.”
Unless the transition to online models for newspapers becomes feasible and happens incredibly fast, Seagrave said, the loss of the Postal Service would be a major blow to the free press. Whereas newspapers were seen as a public good, she said, “We are not seeing the same philosophy being transitioned to the online world.”
Rush said the problem is that many Americans take the Postal Service for granted. “The mail keeps coming, so people don’t realize how precarious the system is, and fortunately for all of us, postal employees are really dedicated to their mission,” she said. “You don’t see many workforces so determined to get things done. Whatever the working conditions are, whatever happens, they know they need to get the mail out.”
Dalby said the nature of the work created that dedication. “People really look forward to seeing you, and then you become important to them and you feel very devoted to what you’re doing,” she said. But, she added, “People see the mail carrier and it just looks like so much fun. It was way more work than you would ever imagine.”
With the threat of USPS cutbacks looming and the potential consequent damage to democracy, Rush said, “The best thing we can do is to try and keep people from taking it all for granted.”
Cana Tagawa’s summer fellowship with the Independent is supported by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University.