In a recent profile titled Democracy by mail, the New York Times highlighted the incredible challenges facing US Postal Service (USPS) workers to keep the gears of democracy turning. In other words, America has never needed its postal workers more, and they’ve certainly been hammering away. This year, more than ever, we need to thank America’s postal workers for their work in the US election.
In the lead-up to yesterday’s election, more than 90 million voters had received mail-in ballots, with 60 million returning their votes before Election Day. The USPS, one of America’s largest employers with a workforce of nearly 500,000 career employees has, without a doubt, played a crucial part in the 2020 US presidential election.
The USPS, which goes by the motto ‘Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night’ had to add the COVID-19 pandemic to its list, which, to this day, resulted in thousands of postal workers testing positive for coronavirus and at least 101 of them dying from it.
In the spring, as the virus spread, letter carriers began hauling bulky deliveries of toilet paper and bottled water. Clerks had to receive mail from behind transparent dividers, postal facilities had to be regularly sprayed with disinfectant and letter carriers had to keep their distance from customers they’ve known for years.
Shortly after that came the quarantines. A worker’s family member or friend would test positive, and they would be out of commission. “This summer, under the newly installed postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, the agency moved to curtail overtime and get rid of sorting equipment, desisting only after a public outcry and accusations of political motivation,” writes the New York Times. Then preparations for the upcoming election started.
The USPS had to implement extraordinary measures for the election. Mail-in ballots had to be dropped in a blue box or handed to a carrier, then separated from regular mail, taken to a plant and sorted and delivered to the nearest election office.
Towards the end of September, a directive came down from headquarters in Washington. Starting eight days before the election, local post-office managers had to accelerate the movement of ballots. Postal workers had to deliver them on Sundays if need be, forcing the people who keep post offices running to work 12, 14 or even 16 hours a day. Of course, all logistics were further complicated by different state-by-state rules.
In Florida (a swing state with many ageing residents, who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19), 6 million people requested mail ballots, and more than 4.6 million sent them back. For postal workers there, shepherding the votes became the latest challenge in an already exhausting year.
This amount of work was quickly crushed by the current administration’s attempt to discredit mail-in votes, which led many voters to question the process. “Postal workers bristle at the accusation that they might be mishandling citizens’ ballots,” writes the New York Times. “Their mandate is to uphold what they call their universal service obligation, a commitment to deliver mail to and from every part of America.”
Postal workers have now found their work to be politicised. Customers will hand over their ballots, then linger at the counter with insistent questions, worried their ballot might end up getting lost somewhere. In response, postal workers say they’re treating mail like gold.
“In an election testing the foundation of democracy, none of this could have happened without the postal workers on the ground,” writes the New York Times. For tens of millions of voters, postal workers have allowed them to have a say in the 2020 US presidential election, safely while they risked their lives.