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How The Post Office Became A Political Football 

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ILLUSTRATION BY EMILY SCHERER / GETTY IMAGES

The post office can’t catch a break. Over the summer, operational changes implemented by the U.S. Postal Service’s new postmaster general raised concerns about mail delays. This prompted congressional investigations, lawsuits, a lot of political rhetoric, and even more public worry about whether the disruptions pose a threat to what will likely be the most mail-reliant election in history.

But the Postal Service isn’t struggling merely because of one new postmaster general’s changes — decades of events out of its control have positioned the agency to be particularly vulnerable when crisis struck.

2020 has seen little but crisis. COVID-19 changed a lot of things about everyday life, including how Americans use the post office. Between March and July, the volume of first-class mail like letters, bills and legal documents dropped off a cliff as businesses sought to cut expenses. At the same time, people isolating at home started ordering necessities (and non-necessities) online at a staggering rate. While overall mail volume was lower during the spring and summer compared to the same time last year, the volume of packages surged. In June, 71 percent more packaging was sent than in the year prior.

“We are at holiday levels of mail,” said one mailcarrier, who asked not to be named because USPS employees have been advised not to speak to the media. “Everybody is stuck at home and they’re ordering online, either because they can’t leave the house or the local merchant isn’t open. I personally deliver several hundred Amazon packages a day.”

That was the state of the USPS right as its new postmaster general started implementing sweeping changes. But the Postal Service has been facing challenges for years, many of which stem from the idiosyncrasies of being one of the nation’s oldest institutions.

The USPS has come a long way since the early 20th century, but some of its founding principles remain.

Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Postal Service has existed in some form or another since 1775, and it has always played a role in politics. But it was not originally conceived as a business. Instead, its founders wanted to make an organization that could facilitate democracy, allowing constituents to communicate with and keep tabs on elected officials, according to Christy Pottroff, a literature professor at Boston College who researches the earliest days of the Postal Service. That means much of the original scaffolding of the institution — parts of which are still in place today — doesn’t jibe with more modern expectations for the service to turn a profit.

“If I wanted to send a letter to you in 1815, it would be super expensive,” Pottroff said “But if I wanted to forward a newspaper to you, it would be super cheap. [The Postal Service] was established as a system of spreading the news to as many people as quickly as possible, and communication with elected officials in D.C. It was, in the past, the only way that system of democracy could work.”

This mandate set up the expectation that the post office should serve every American, regardless of class or location. That foundation permeates to this day, even as the institution has faced new financial challenges: An American living in rural Alaska doesn’t have to pay more to send a postcard than someone living in downtown Manhattan. This differs from a private business, which has no obligation to deliver packages to places that aren’t worth the cost of transportation.

But the modern era has complicated the post office’s lofty ideals. In 1970, following widespread wildcat strikes demanding better pay and safer working conditions, the post office was transformed. In exchange for employees’ right to collectively bargain, Congress passed an act that changed the post office from a publicly funded cabinet department to a self-funded, independent agency. Basically, the post office had to function less like a public service and more like a private business, but still uphold its public service obligations — like being beholden to requirements set by Congress and having to serve every American. This worked all right for a few decades, but then the internet happened.

The USPS has a monopoly on sending or carrying flat envelope mail, also known as first-class mail, and on delivering items to physical mailboxes. (It’s actually illegal to slide something through a mailslot if it’s not a piece of paid USPS mail.) This was great for the Postal Service until the internet made handwritten letters, invitations, physical bills, checks, bank statements, etc., all but obsolete. Since its peak in 2001, first-class mail has declined precipitously. That year, more than 103 billion pieces of first-class mail were delivered by the Postal Service. In 2019, that number had dropped to just under 55 billion. This drop in first-class and advertising mail, historically the biggest revenue earners, has hurt the agency’s ability to generate funds.

“That market has gone into a kind of death spiral, and it’s not coming back,” said Richard John, a professor of history at Columbia University and the author of “Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse.”

Right around the time the internet was eroding the post office’s historical cash cow, Congress enacted a new rule that has caused significant financial hardship for the agency. Unlike any other single federal agency, the post office has since 2006 been required to set aside billions of dollars every year to cover health benefits for future retired employees. These payments amount to about $5 billion a year, but the USPS hasn’t been able to make any payments since 2011, causing the burden to snowball — the agency is now behind on $119.3 billion in payments for the prefunding requirement.

But the internet did come with a silver lining: online shopping. While first-class mail has dropped, the growth of online retailers like Amazon has provided a new opportunity for the Postal Service. It doesn’t have a monopoly over package delivery like it does with letters, so it has to compete with private shippers like UPS and FedEx. But it does have a centuries-old network that reaches every resident in the country. This allows the USPS to negotiate contracts with shippers and retailers to provide last-mile service: delivering packages to addresses that wouldn’t be worth a FedEx trip, but that the post office has to visit anyway.

That last-mile service has helped prop up the agency. A 2018 report from a Trump task force found that from 2013 through 2018, the USPS earned enough revenue to cover its costs … if you don’t include the prefunding requirement.

In 2017, for example, the USPS generated $69.7 billion in total revenue, enough to cover its operating expenses of $68.2 billion, but not to cover the roughly $5 billion in retiree benefits contributions it should have made that year, or chip away at the debt created by not making those payments for most of the decade. As a result, at the end of the 2017 fiscal year, the USPS reported a net loss of $2.7 billion.

That’s why Trump’s claims that the Postal Service is losing money because of last-mile delivery don’t hold water.1 But it does emphasize how crippling that prefunding requirement has been for the service. And that has left it open to criticism that it needs to reform its operations in order to be steady going forward.

Packages have helped keep the USPS afloat, even as President Trump has complained about package rates.

Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images

Enter Louis DeJoy. More than a decade of financial losses and a shifting marketplace provided the perfect setting for a new postmaster general with a successful career in the private sector to start overhauling the system in the name of efficiency and innovation. And when you mix DeJoy’s interest in overhauling the agency’s policies with a global pandemic and a looming election, you’ve got the perfect recipe for turning the country’s most popular government institution into a political lightning rod.

“Right now, at this moment, there are really strange forces converging to screw everything up,” said Richard Kielbowicz, a communications professor at the University of Washington. “Losing first-class mail, where the postal service made most of its money, has been a problem for the last 25 years. But that’s in the background and complicating it is this requirement to prepay retirement benefits, and then on top of that you add that Trump doesn’t like Amazon, and then layered on top of all of that is voting by mail.”

The Postal Service’s increasing dependence on package delivery to earn revenue makes it a prime target for Trump. He already threatened to withhold federal pandemic aid unless the USPS quadrupled the rates it charges for last-mile delivery, a proposition that could make it impossible for the post office to compete. If the USPS didn’t offer competitive rates for that delivery, it wouldn’t take long for other delivery companies — or Amazon itself, which already provides its own door-to-door delivery in many areas — to take over all but the most remote deliveries. These very tensions came to light in a trove of internal USPS documents made public last week.

In the short term, the worst-case scenario will be that the mail is slightly delayed, though not to the point that a vote-by-mail election is rendered impossible (this is why experts recommend requesting and returning your ballot as early as possible). A federal judge has blocked the changes DeJoy implemented that slowed the mail. But even if that injunction gets thrown out by the Supreme Court, some delays shouldn’t prevent a mail-in election from otherwise running smoothly. In fact, in a legal brief filed in response to a lawsuit seeking a court order to guarantee sufficient funding for the general election, the Postal Service pointed out that “… even if every registered voter in the United States used a mail-in ballot in the 2020 Election, those ballots would represent only a fraction of the total mailpieces that the USPS processes each day, on average, and would pale in comparison to spikes in mail volume that the USPS handles every winter holiday season.”

But long term, the weaknesses of the Postal Service will remain, regardless of who wins the election. Even if there’s a new president in the White House next year, the USPS will face the same shaky ground it did at the beginning of the year. If you care about the post office now, you’ll likely need to keep caring about it for months — or years — to come.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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