Democracy and Post Offices

The importance of the U.S. Postal Service in our country, especially rural America during a pandemic

By Myers Reece

Of all federal departments, the U.S. Postal Service may have the strongest claim to a “non-political” label, due to both its straightforward community-service mandate and its perception among Americans of all stripes. It annually tops the list of Pew Research Center’s favorability list for public views on government agencies, coming in at 91% this year, with an equal favorability among Republicans and Democrats.

Yet, the agency is decidedly political right now.

President Donald Trump has placed the agency at the center of his crusade against mail-in voting, which he says is rife with fraud potential, a claim refuted by both years of evidence and election officials, nationally and locally. Nevertheless, Trump is opposing relief funding to buoy the financially beleaguered department during the pandemic, at a time when more states are exploring expanded mail voting due to COVID-19.

Moreover, Trump’s postmaster general has also announced the elimination of overtime for postal workers, reassigned or displaced 23 high-ranked agency officials, proposed nearly tripling postage costs for mailing ballots to voters, removed collection boxes and outlined policy changes that will delay delivery, with Democrats and even close Republican allies expressing outrage.

The net effect of the Postal Service actions could be the disenfranchisement of millions of voters.

Far away from Washington D.C., however, residents of America’s heartland are more likely to view the local post office as a daily necessity than a political tool. Numerous articles have recently been written about the role post offices play in rural communities, peppered with quotes from small-town locals describing them as fundamental to their culture and well-being.

Two clear indicators of post offices’ significance in Montana are the separate letters that U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte wrote to the postmaster general decrying policy changes affecting delivery times, arguing that any delays would disproportionately impact rural Americans, especially seniors and veterans.

The Republicans say Montanans rely on mail for prescriptions, including what Daines said is “nearly 100 percent of all Veterans Affairs prescriptions,” as well as financial documents, bills, online purchases and other necessities, while businesses depend on postal deliveries.

Gianforte stated flatly: “Do not continue down this road.” Daines called the USPS “an existential necessity.”

The two Republicans also spoke out against the recent removal of collection mailboxes. The Postal Service suspended the removal program in Montana, but it’s not clear whether it was halted in other states.

“During the current public health crisis it is more important than ever the USPS continue to provide prompt, dependable delivery service,” Gianforte said.

Neither Daines nor Gianforte is typically keen to publicly disagree with Trump, which makes their letters all the more notable. Sen. Jon Tester has also vehemently spoken out against the Trump administration’s decisions impacting the Postal Service and mail voting.

Indeed, Montanans depend on post offices in ways that city dwellers don’t, a reliance that extends well beyond the exchange of daily essentials. Small-town post offices are also hubs for social interactions and information, serving as ersatz visitor centers and meeting grounds.

Yet, the post office as a community cornerstone represents more than a nostalgic symbol of rural America; it’s the physical manifestation of an enduring democratic idea that mail ties the country together as a foundational instrument of civic life, and a reminder that the agency overseeing it remains as vital today as in decades past.

In this pandemic election year, in fact, it’s even more paramount than ever.   

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