US to stay in Universal Postal Union, averting chaos for overseas voters

In another attempt to destroy a long-standing international agreement, Donald Trump threatened to create chaos for overseas voters by withdrawing from the Universal Postal Union (UPU), a United Nations body that has regulated mail services for 145 years. But disaster was averted today, when UPU, in tense last-minute negotiations, agreed to changes in its rate structure that satisfied U.S. concerns.

If Trump had gotten his way, overseas voters could have found themselves on the outs on Election Day, because they would have had no way to mail in their ballots and could have been left with the necessity of sending them via air-express services at a very prohibitive cost.

U.S. trade negotiators had contended that postal rates set by UPU gave unfair advantages to America’s economic rivals, especially China—and they may have had a valid point. But in focusing solely on that imbalance, and by making international postal rates part of Trump’s ongoing trade war with China, they ignored the impact that a withdrawal (which had been dubbed “Pexit”) would have had on U.S. elections.

How Pexit would have affected military and overseas voters

The National Association of Counties (NACO)—whose members include the election officials who administer voting across the U.S—had been strongly opposed to “Pexit.” Here’s how NACO explained its potential impact:

Military service members, their eligible dependents and U.S. citizens living abroad face unique challenges in participating in our elections. The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) estimates that about three-quarters of the 1.3 million active duty service members and three million other U.S. citizens across 170 countries are covered under the Uniformed Overseas Citizen Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), which allows these citizens to vote absentee while away from their voting jurisdiction.

One of the largest barriers for UOCAVA voters is the transit time to receive and return a ballot, which can vary depending on ballot delivery method, submission options allowed by state law, duty location and internet connectivity. As primary administrators of our nation’s elections, counties are responsible for transmitting and processing military and overseas ballots. To allow extra time and mitigate possible delivery issues, federal law requires these ballots be transmitted no later than 45 days before federal elections. In the 2016 presidential election, counties sent nearly a million absentee ballots to UOCAVA voters. Most ballots are returned to the county through postal mail.

As many counties prepare to mail UOCAVA ballots in mid-September for state and local elections this November, any disruption to the mail service could negatively impact the ability for military members, their spouses and other overseas citizens to participate. Additionally, a U.S. withdrawal from the UPU this October could have even broader implications on the 2020 primaries and presidential election.

Talking Points Memo interviewed Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor at the Democracy Fund, which works with election officials on voting administration issues. Patrick said, “I’ve had sleepless nights worrying what will happen for voters that won’t have the ability to return a ballot.

She and others in the voting space feared it would be more expensive for overseas voters to cast ballots, if they had to rely on private carriers to do so, or that it would be altogether impossible for them to know for sure whether they’d be able to get their ballots submitted in time.

“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.

So, the crisis appears to have been averted, for now. But still, as long as Trump is in the White House, I will vote for continued vigilance.