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Posts published in “Day: August 21, 2020”

Rural service


A correspondent points out that two federal agencies recently in the news, both of which seem to be facing cuts in service, assets and budgets evidently orchestrated from the White House, have outsized impacts on the rural areas of Idaho. He’s right.

The Bureau of the Census and the U.S. Postal Service make a difference everywhere in the country, of course, in all states and in thickly as well as thinly populated areas. But the cutbacks in those agencies hit rural areas like Idaho’s especially strongly.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made this a challenging year for the census. Now, as news reports have said, it “is cutting short critical door-knocking efforts for the 2020 census amid growing concerns among Democrats in Congress that the White House is pressuring the bureau to wrap up counting soon for political gain.”

If so, the administration may be wrong about those political benefits. People usually are easier to count in more heavily populated areas, and more challenging where people are more scattered. In many of the rural sections of Idaho, any federal activity - not least the census - is regarded with suspicion. If the people there decline to cooperate fully, though, the effect may be an undercount in many of Idaho’s rural counties - in fact, some reports are circulating that the count is as much as twice as complete in the larger urban areas (think the Boise region) compared to more rural areas. These rural places are in many cases either not growing or declining in population, and undercounts could be catastrophic.

Census figures are used to calculate legislative representation (for state legislative and congressional seats) but also how much federal and other money is spent. These areas could miss out in big ways, for years to come, without a full census count.

The Postal Service reaches people more regularly and personally, and it too has been targeted for cutbacks. For the first three and a half years of the Trump Administration things didn’t change dramatically at the post office, but they have now. As nearly all states, facing Covid-19 pressures, move toward mail-in balloting, the always-difficult finances of the service have taken on a new meaning. Trump last week told Fox Business Network, “If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting; they just can’t have it.” And that, he made clear, would be fine with him.

The pulling out of mail sorters and post office boxes, and slowing of mail delivery, seems intended to create uncertainty about whether the service can handle ballot delivery this fall. (The Post Office has managed the job just fine, for years, in places like Washington, Oregon and Utah; and regular Christmas and other seasonal mail pressures are far greater.) Some reports last week suggest that the reduction of service may not happen, or at least may not get worse. But don’t take that for granted.

The election impact could hit harder in rural than urban Idaho, where county clerks’ offices usually are nearby and ballots can be dropped off directly - which probably is the ideal way to cast a vote this season. (In many states, like Oregon and Washington, where mail voting has been well established, voters get their ballots by mail but few return them that way. Most use ballot boxes, which are set up widely all over those states, for which postage is not needed under any conditions. A suggestion: Lobby for installation of those boxes across Idaho too.)

A deliberate wrecking of the service is much broader than one election. As we write this, I’ve been waiting for a check in the mail. I’m not alone - many people get necessary payments through the mails. Some receive medical prescriptions. Businesses still send invoices that way, and many people pay their bills - still - through the postal service.

It’s become a commonplace in Idaho politics that government services should not be relied on too heavily. But the services provided by the Post Office and the Census go back to the early days of the nation, and they have served the nation - including Idaho, it should be said - well.

As you see them under attack in this election season, think hard about who’s doing it, and why.