A handful of special interests who benefit from our trade deficit with China have joined with some progressive advocates to stoke fears that overseas troops and other Americans may not be able to vote this year if the U.S. leaves an international postal organization. The charges are flat out wrong and classic fearmongering.
Let’s start with the postal situation.
The U.S. and most other industrialized countries for decades have been getting a raw deal on international package shipping. The Trump Administration has been pushing for more than a year to change this and has gotten support from 40 countries and some unlikely allies at home, including the editorial pages of The Washington Post and Bloomberg.
It costs less than half as much to send a small package (4.4 pounds or less) from China to the U.S. than to send the same package to the next town over. Many other industrialized countries are in a similar position. The result is the U.S. and other countries’ businesses lose tens of billions in annual sales, jobs and pay more for domestic postage.
International postal rates are set by the Universal Postal Union (UPU) and for decades the Chinese have played the UPU like a maestro. Despite having the second largest economy in the world, China, by UPU standards, is classified as a developing country and gets postal subsidies.
There is at least a 50-50 chance this situation will be fixed at a September 24-26 Extraordinary Congress of the UPU. The U.S. position is eminently fair and attractive to other countries: we simply want our postal service to be able to charge foreign customers the same rates as domestic customers.
Without a satisfactory agreement, the U.S. will leave the UPU on October 17 and structure bilateral agreements with other countries.
The naysayers are not pulling any punches. Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos on September 16 tweeted, “Leaving the Universal Postal Union could have disastrous consequences for American voters overseas. This includes our active duty military service members stationed abroad, who already face challenging barriers accessing their right to cast their ballots.”
Here are seven reasons why Secretary Condos and others touting similar positions are wrong.
Likelihood of comprehensive new deals. With most industrialized countries, the U.S. sees eye-to-eye on postal issues. We have already begun discussions for comprehensive, bilateral agreements with these counties, should they be necessary with a UPU exit. And the U.S. Postal Service has a lot of experience in this regard, having executed 500 international deals.
Stand-alone letter agreements. Absentee ballots are classified as letters, and letters and related documents are the least controversial items in postal negotiations. So, even without comprehensive country-to-country agreements, the letters issue is likely to be easily addressed.
Overseas military mail is part of the U.S. mail system. There is no reason for mail sent by overseas troops and sailors to enter a foreign mail system. In fact, there are 1,200 overseas military zip codes that are integrated with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS).
Troops’ and sailors’ mail is handled by the Military Postal Service (MPS). As the U.S. Army says on its website, “The MPS operates as an extension of the USPS in over 55 countries and provides similar postal service to authorized Department of Defense patrons for personal and official mail around the world in contingency and non-contingency operations.”
Fax. Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia allow overseas voters to print out and fax back ballots, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
E-Mail and Web Portals. Also according to NCSL, twenty states and the District of Columbia allow overseas voters to return ballots via e-mail. Five states accept returns from web portals.
Private shippers. Private carriers can return ballots.
Other. In the unlikely event a disruptive postal delivery situation occurs, there will be no shortage of solutions. One option is that ballots could be sent to the U.S. embassy and couriered out of the country in bulk.
While all should go smoothly even if the U.S. leaves the UPU, this event should serve as a wake-up call for many states to improve their overseas balloting processes before the 2020 election.
In the age of the Internet, 19 states, including Secretary Condos’ Vermont, do not allow any electronic transmission of ballots. This is an easy fix, technologically, and it will also empower overseas voters by giving more time to study and consider their voting choices.
What is harder to fix is the decades-long broken pricing system at the Universal Postal Union. While there is reason for optimism for a near-term solution, one way or another Americans will have fairer postal rates and continued smooth international mail and package delivery.
About the Author: Paul Steidler is a Senior Fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank based in Arlington, Virginia.
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