The Trump administration has supported plenty of moves to make it harder to vote. But an under-the-radar action President Trump took last year, as part of his trade war with China, may be a case of him just stumbling into that outcome, election experts fear.
Trump is threatening to withdraw from the international body that oversees global mail delivery, putting at risk the stability and reliability of the current system of sending and receiving mail internationally.
Any disruption to the international postal service, voter advocates say, could make an already difficult process of casting ballots for Americans abroad even more complicated. Among those who stand to be affected are members of the military overseas, whose ability to vote while serving their country has always been a politically sensitive issue.
The White House told TPM it’s working “diligently” to make sure that if the United States exits the 145-year-old international postal alliance, the withdrawal would be “seamless.” But the administration wouldn’t provide details about its planning, particularly as it pertains to elections, or about who exactly has been working on it. The lack of clarity is prompting anxiety in the election policy world. If the United States leaves the global mail delivery organization, it will happen just a few months before the 2020 primaries begin.
“I’ve had sleepless nights worrying what will happen for voters that won’t have the ability to return a ballot,” said Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor at the Democracy Fund who works with elections officials on voting administration issues.
She and others in the voting space fear it will be more expensive for overseas voters to cast ballots, if they have to rely on private carriers to do so, or that it will be altogether impossible for them to know for sure whether they’ll be able to get their ballots submitted in time.
Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the Universal Postal Union, which sets the rates and rules for international postal delivery across borders, last October. His objections to the current regime pertain to the subsidized rate China receives when sending packages out of its borders, which the administration says disadvantages American manufactures. If the UPU does not allow the U.S. to set its own rates — the organization is gathering in late September for negotiations — the U.S. is set to withdraw from the 192-country organization altogether come October.
While trade experts have said that the administration’s grievances with the system are legitimate, they also say the impact of a withdrawal is unpredictable at best and could result in a more costly and less reliable international mail service.
That’s where the move could screw with U.S. elections, voter advocates warn.
“This action could seriously jeopardize the integrity of the overseas vote,” said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president of the U.S. Vote Foundation, a non-partisan organization that offers voting assistance to overseas Americans.
In addition to military members, those Americans include their families, U.S. contractors working internationally, other Americans whose jobs take them overseas, as well as students, missionaries and participants in programs like the Peace Corp.
Many of them rely on the mail to submit ballots, with 19 states requiring that overseas ballots be sent back by mail only.
‘Intense Preparation,’ Few Public Details
A senior administration official, who spoke to TPM on the condition that the official not be named, said the White House had been “working diligently” and that the integrity of U.S. elections is “of the highest priority.”
The official said there been “intense preparation” for a potential withdrawal and weekly meetings covering “all bases.”
TPM provided the White House with a list of concerns, questions and trade-offs flagged by outside election experts.
“Each of these issues are clearly on our radar screen,” the senior administration official said, who repeated the goal of a “seamless transition.” But the official declined to go into the specifics of how the administration was thinking through the various complications the withdrawal could bring for voting. Nor would the official go into more detail about who was being looped in on the election-specific plans.
“We have been meeting at the White House on a weekly basis for months with all the stakeholders, including the Postmaster General’s team, the State Department and others to ensure an absolutely seamless exit from UPU if necessary,” the official said.
It’s not clear how often those meetings addressed the voting implications of the move, which, until now, have received almost no public attention.
‘Like A Poll Tax’
International mail delivery can already be slow for American voters abroad, who face tight — and sometimes impossible— turnaround times between when they receive ballots and when they must be send them out to meet their state’s absentee voting deadlines.
A 2016 Government Accountability Office report found that already “some military and overseas voters who rely solely on mail delivery may not have enough time to both request a blank ballot and cast their vote.”
Turning to private carriers like FedEx and UPS to expedite ballot delivery could come at a financial cost to overseas voters, as the fees these carriers charge for quick international delivery are not cheap.
“Any time it becomes more and more expensive for ballots to be sent, that’s like a poll tax,” said Julia Bryan, the global chair of Democrats Abroad, the state Democratic Party for Americans living outside the U.S.
The U.S. Postal Service declined to go into any specifics on its work with White House on the issue. Its spokesperson said that USPS was “undertaking parallel efforts to ensure the continued exchange of international mail items even if the negotiations to remain in the UPU are unsuccessful,” an effort that “includes addressing and prioritizing military mailing issues.”
It is the non-military civilians abroad whose voting rights elections experts are most worried about.
The military current operates its own postal service— the Military Postal Service Agency [MPSA] — that could possibly step up to help overseas service members mail ballots in time, voter advocates speculated. But, according to Patrick, that won’t be of much use to any American voters who live off base, which could also include military spouses, U.S. contractors, and, of course, the millions of U.S. citizens abroad for civilian reasons.
A study by the Federal Voter Assistance Program, an office under the Department of Defense which facilitates overseas voting, estimated that some 3 million citizens of voting age live abroad in 2016 but only 6.9 percent of them voted. The study said that rate would be 37.5 percent, if the obstacles to overseas voting were removed.
FVAP confirmed to TPM that one of its representatives attended a previously unreported meeting about the UPU with the White House last Thursday “for informational purposes.”
The U.S. Elections Assistance Commission, a federal agency the offers resources for state and local election officials, said in a statement that it “is aware of the conversation surrounding this issue” and that, should the withdrawal be implemented, “we will work closely with FVAP to assist and provide guidance for election officials across the nation to help navigate the change.”
A Pivot To Online Options?
Under the MOVE Act, election officials are required to make available for overseas voters ballots that can be downloaded electronically to print and fill out. Many states offer some electronic method, either by fax, email or online portal, for overseas voters to then submit that ballot. But 19 states do not, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures, and seven more only allow electronic transmission via fax.
Bryan said her group is working with legislatures of certain states, like New York, to relax those rules.
“But it’s a slow legislative process to change those laws,” she said.
A pivot to online ballot submission alternatives itself isn’t a silver bullet, given the election cybersecurity concerns that have been raised in light of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election.
“If that’s the only option, how do we shore it up as well as possible? How do we make sure that it doesn’t allow access to the greater system?” Patrick said.
The 2016 GAO study also found that overseas voters are often unaware of their options to download and submit ballots online.
Furthermore, efforts taken by some states to make their election systems more secure from cyberattacks have also made ballot access more burdensome for overseas voters.
Overseas voters have reported being blocked from even accessing their states’ election websites because they were using a foreign IP address, according to the groups that work with them. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, this happened in 2018 in Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state where, in 2016, some 10,000 military members overseas and an additional 19,000 civilians abroad requested to vote absentee.
New Mexico, Tennessee, Georgia, and Vermont were also among the states apparently blocking foreign access to their election websites, according to the Inquirer.
“Sometimes elections are a razor thin margin and [a UPU withdrawal] is a great way to knock out overseas ballots,” Dzieduszycka-Suinat said.