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American voters support the post office. Their views on mail-in voting are more complicated.

Sixty percent of voters see the USPS as an essential service, not akin to a business, according to a new poll.

People stand in line near a USPS mailbox in New York City on August 29, 2020.
Noam Galai/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The United States Postal Service is the rare federal agency that has historically had strong public support. But its reputation has been tested amid the current crisis at the USPS, which has raised questions about the agency’s ability to handle mail-in voting this Election Day.

A new poll from Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, and the Justice Collaborative Institute, provided exclusively to Vox, suggests that Americans still broadly support the Postal Service, even if they’re less than thrilled about some of the changes at the agency under the leadership of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.

Sixty percent of voters polled believe the USPS should be treated as a public good — meaning they see it more as an essential service, like the fire department, than as a business that should make a profit. That feeling is strongest among Democratic voters, 74 percent of whom say the USPS is an essential service. Republicans are more likely to say that the USPS should be run like a business, though 45 percent of GOP voters also see it as an essential service.

Courtesy of Data for Progress/Justice Collaborative Institute

Data for Progress surveyed 1,135 likely voters nationally on August 21, through a web panel, and the results were weighted for age, gender, education, race, and voting history.

The United States Postal Service has for years faced a financial crisis. Revenue from first-class mail has declined since 2000, and 2006 legislation that required the Postal Service to prefund 75 years’ worth of retirement and health care costs put an unprecedented financial obligation on the agency.

Then the pandemic hit, which took a toll on the labor force as employees got sick or had to take leave, driving up overtime costs. DeJoy, who took over the postmaster job in June, has also overseen several cost-cutting measures, which drove some delays in mail service.

Those delays also came as President Donald Trump began to target mail-in voting, claiming without evidence that it would lead to massive fraud. (Voting fraud in general is very, very low, including with mail-in ballots.)

Democrats and some voting rights advocates feared that DeJoy — a Trump ally and longtime Republican donor — might be slowing the mail deliberately, especially as the USPS had already admitted it would struggle to deliver mail-in ballots in time to be counted in many states.

DeJoy has dismissed any allegations that he’s undermining the USPS. He has also since suspended some of the initiatives ahead of the election, though he is not reversing those that have already gone into effect.

But it seems the damage might already be done, particularly among Democratic voters. About 49 percent of all voters are very concerned that Trump and DeJoy might try to disrupt voting this year. Here, there is a pretty stark partisan divide: 78 percent of Democrats are very concerned about this, compared with just 37 percent of independents and 26 percent of Republicans.

Courtesy of Data for Progress/Justice Collaborative Institute

Even with those divisions, there’s pretty strong bipartisan support for making sure the USPS makes ballots a priority. Overwhelmingly, voters — a total of 74 percent — want election mail to be treated as first-class mail — meaning it’s preferenced over other mail, even if it costs more for state governments. (DeJoy has promised that the USPS will continue to prioritize ballots, including putting them ahead of some first-class mail.) This has strong bipartisan support across the board, with nearly three of out four Democrats, independents, and Republicans backing the idea.

Courtesy of Data for Progress/Justice Collaborative Institute

Yet Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting (though he votes by mail) seem to have shifted some Republicans’ view on the practice. Data for Progress found a majority of voters — 52 percent — believe that voting by mail is trustworthy and that everyone should have the option to do so. But while 73 percent of Democrats agreed with that statement, other groups are a little more skeptical: 48 percent of independents agreed, but only 32 percent of Republicans did. A majority of GOP voters (62 percent) said vote-by-mail systems would actually lead to voter fraud and should be restricted.

Courtesy of Data for Progress/Justice Collaborative Institute

As the United States inches closer to Election Day, that partisan split on voting by mail has some analysts concerned. Democrats may be more likely to cast their vote by mail, whereas Republicans — who may be more skeptical of voting by mail, driven by the president’s attacks — may vote in person.

Already about one in four Americans vote by mail, but that number could double in 2020. States that have expanded mail-in voting could see an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots, and those are going to take longer to tally because it’s a bit more of a laborious process. That could create a situation in which Trump appears to be winning on Election Night, only for that lead to shift in favor of Democratic candidate Joe Biden once all the mail-in ballots are counted.

The fear is that Trump will declare victory and then claim fraud once the results start to shift. And what comes after — well, it probably isn’t good.

Handling ballots is just one job the USPS does, albeit one that is fundamental to American democracy. Beyond partisan divisions over voting by mail, Americans rely on the USPS for their businesses, paying bills, and medications. Protecting the institution largely has bipartisan backing, at least right now.