ICYMI: Tammy Patrick on a Potential U.S. Universal Postal Union Withdrawal

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Last Thursday, Democracy Fund senior advisor and “postal whisperer” Tammy Patrick had a crucially important piece in electionlineWeekly about an issue many in the election community may have missed – but should be watching closely: a potential U.S. withdrawal from the Universal Postal Union. Take a look:

Since 1874 the majority of nations around the world  have been in an established compact under the Universal Postal Union (UPU) to receive and deliver each other’s mail. The UPU is one of the oldest international organizations, monitoring disputes and governing the rates that countries charge for mail receipt and delivery. In October 2018, the current administration announced that the U.S. was initiating the one-year withdrawal process from the UPU due to a dispute over the discounted postal rates charged on Chinese packages shipped to the United States.

Current Status
In February and April, UPU working committees met, but were ultimately unable to advance the U.S. proposal, and media coverage suggest that the administration is fully preparing for a withdrawal in October. If the U.S. proceeds with its withdrawal from the union, we will need to seek bilateral agreements with countries to maintain the 192 relationships and negotiate individual mail rates—causing an unnecessary drain on taxpayer dollars and government resources. This situation has largely been off of the radar for many Americans, including election administrators and voters. 

Impact on Military and Overseas Voters

UOCAVA voters have the right to receive their ballot 45 days before Election Day, and they may request to have that ballot sent electronically or by the mail. Connectivity varies globally for our voters as does their proximity to, and frequency of mail delivery—even under the agreements set forth with the UPU. Disruption to the already fragile and tenuous services available to this voting population could have dramatic implications. One of our most vulnerable voting populations are those Americans who find themselves out of the country during election time. Time and distance, access to information and infrastructure, can impede their ability to vote. Indeed, there have been numerous studies – including the oft-cited Pew study “No Time to Vote” – that highlight the challenges voters face. Federal law, under the Uniformed and Overseas Civilian Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), seeks to mitigate the barriers these voters encounter—but it never contemplated that there would be a potential halt to the physical delivery of the mail.

According to the Election Assistance Commission’s (EAC) Election Administration and Voting Survey(EAVS), the majority of UOCAVA voters return their ballot through the physical mail stream. The impact on the 2020 election cycle could be in the millions of voters. We know that in the 2018 Midterm Election there were an estimated 3-5 million UOCAVA voters. According to EAC’s findings:

  • 1.3 million service members and 700,000 military spouses are stationed away from their legal voting residence;
  • An estimated 3 million voting age citizens are living, working, and studying overseas;
  • Two thirds of the UOCAVA ballots came from overseas civilians in the 2018 midterm elections;

In addition, 

  • State and local elections in November 2019 will be affected, in addition to the 2020 primary and general elections; and
  • The average cost to return a ballot for an overseas voter could be as high as $30 or more, depending on the country.

There are conflicting reports on what impact the withdrawal from the UPU will have on private service providers, diplomatic and military mail. Companies like FedEx and UPS are not under the UPU, but leverage the USPS global network to optimize their own coverage so an interruption to that system could have implications.

Diplomatic pouches from U.S. embassies and consulates are delivered under other international agreements and should not be impacted, but service could be impeded based on the degree that embassies and consulates rely upon another nation’s postal service as part of the delivery chain and there may be resulting confusion.

Finally, the Military Postal Service Agency (MPSA) – which provides postal services to active military service members – could also be negatively impacted by a withdrawal. Indeed, a report this week in Stars and Stripes stated that APOs and FPOs would be impacted by the UPU withdrawal.

Ultimately, the challenges and disparate treatment faced by voters around the globe would likely be further exacerbated by the variation in timing of services provided at a small, remote village versus major urban centers, forward deployments versus those stationed on bases, those with reliable connectivity versus those without.

What Happens Next and What Can We Do?
We will know in September what the outcome of the negotiations are and if the withdrawal will happen on October 17th. In the meantime, election administrators should gather the following information and begin sharing it with their legislative and executive branches, stakeholder groups, staff and voters:

Know Your Numbers:

  • What are your UOCAVA numbers?
  • What countries are your voters in? (This will be important if we will be entering into individual agreements with each of the 192 UPU countries—they won’t all happen at once.)
  • Which voters are serviced by MPSA vs. USPS?

Know Your (Voters’) Options:

  • Will your electronic delivery mechanism accommodate all your UOCAVA voters?
  • What return channels are available if physical mail isn’t? (Check out the recommendations by The Turnout for some practical, some technical things that you can do.)
  • Consider your communication channels for this voting population and how you will get them information (first stop, review your website!)

Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy, and the United States should not withdraw from the UPU to ensure American voters outside of the country are able to continue receiving and returning their ballots. A withdrawal will have a disparate impact on some voters – like those serving and studying overseas – over others and further complicate the process and likelihood that a ballot will be successfully received, returned and counted.

The hardest part about a potential U.S. withdrawal is the combination of huge uncertainty – will it happen? when? how quickly? – and the certainty that any disruption to overseas mail will affect significant numbers of American voters abroad. Thanks to electionlineWeekly for the forum and especially to Tammy for explaining the issue and for her suggestions on what election officials can do next. September and October are coming fast – and with them potentially staggering changes in the worldwide mail system. Buckle up – and stay tuned.

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