The coronavirus pandemic and economic pains that come with it are pushing vital American institutions to the brink. They are key to a functioning democracy.

Harm done to the U.S. Postal Service, to the elections system and local news providers won’t be quickly repaired once the immediate public health emergency has passed. The mail, voting and the news are deeply intertwined. Preserving them from permanent damage or destruction requires all Americans to take an active interest, and for our elected leaders to respond accordingly.

Vote by mail

Much has been said about the election fiasco in Wisconsin, in which voters were required to show up in person at polling places in the midst of an easily transmitted infectious outbreak. It doesn’t take any smarts to realize how stupid this was.

Washington and Oregon pioneered mail-in ballots. Contrary to lies foolishly told by some, it is a system that works close to flawlessly. Some argue that Washington should follow the Oregon system of requiring all ballots to be in the hands of election officials by election day — avoiding a drawn-out counting process. Others argue that Oregon should maximize the voting franchise by following Washington’s practice of counting all votes cast or mailed up through election night. But with these minor quibbles, it’s a system that will work anywhere in the nation.

To suggest that mail-in voting will result in more fraud is ridiculous. County and state election offices are justly proud of their long and well-deserved reputation for running clean and competent elections. Overseen by elected Republicans and Democrats alike, balloting in the Pacific Northwest has been scandal-free — unlike the appalling catastrophes that occur in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

In an April 13 newspaper column, U.S. Sens. Chris Coons, Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden said it well:

”If the covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that preparation and early action are central to a competent response. The time to chart a course for a safe, secure, accessible election is now. If states don’t start to make changes to their election systems within the next few weeks, millions of Americans will be forced to choose between their health and their right to vote come November.

”We believe that no American should ever have to make that choice. That’s why we’ve been fighting in the Senate to get three things done so that no American will have to do so: Expand no-excuse vote by mail to every state; expand early voting to at least 20 days in every state so that voters who vote in person, including voters with disabilities, can do so safely; and expand online voter registration.”

Congress and the states must do everything in their power to ensure that every eligible American is able to cast their ballots — not just this year, but every year. Vote-by-mail is one of the best ways to reach this goal.

Protect the U.S. mail

We can’t speak for city people, but in rural communities like ours the local post office and the people who work there are absolutely crucial to our way of life. They personify professionalism, a customer-comes-first attitude, and the time-honored knowledge that any of us can communicate with anyone nationwide for the cost of a stamp.

Yes, email and social media now allow swift, informal messaging. Commercial companies — unburdened by strict pension requirements and other impediments imposed by past congresses — have taken on a lot of package-delivery work. But the U.S. Postal Service is an essential circulatory system that keeps our national body alive. (See tinyurl.com/IPS-Postal-Article for a good explanation for how federal lawmakers have deliberately crippled the Postal Service.)

Few local institutions are more dependent on the U.S. Mail than community newspapers. Our trade group, the National Newspaper Association (NNA), explains the situation:

”Most community newspapers are delivered by mail. Particularly in rural areas, regular 6-day mail delivery is an increasingly critical lifeline for communities suffering from the impact of covid-19. Although some newspapers are able to adequately serve their markets for a time by providing digital only publications, the delivery of the printed newspaper is a critical element for the newspaper’s economic sustainability. It is also is important for residents. The National Association of Counties recently pointed out that half of America’s counties lack sufficient broadband service that meets federal minimum standards. Particularly now, with families putting new stress on the Internet by working at home, the delivery of the printed information can be critical.

”Congress has delayed too long in addressing the fragile finances of USPS. The CARES act provided a $10 billion loan, which has been entangled in red tape by the Treasury Department. But Congress must do more. Providing funds to USPS is not a “bailout.” The Postal Service is a federal agency, not a private company. It requires federal funding to do its work in critical times. Congress must work with the USPS Board of Governors, a majority of whom were appointed by the Trump administration, to identify and grant adequate appropriations to maintain universal service.”

Local news

Community newspapers like ours are not the “mainstream media” that produces such passionate foes and defenders among national political activists on the right and left. Far removed from New York and Los Angeles-based corporate conglomerates, we make our living and spend our lives reporting on local people and news. Deeply interesting to a small audience, nobody else is going to act as the voice and memory of places like Pacific County.

As summarized by the NNA:

”Newspapers are considered essential businesses in statewide shut-down orders. Community newspapers serving small towns, rural areas and neighborhoods continue to attempt to publish in most cases even though they have lost all or most of their revenue stream because of mandated shutdowns. Virtually every newspaper has furloughed employees, reduced publishing frequency or instituted pay cuts to get through the covid-19 emergency. The New York Times reports that about 28,000 news employees have lost their jobs, been furloughed or had their pay reduced — but the Times may not be including all community newspapers in its assessment. Likely, the number is higher. [In coastal Washington alone, recent weeks have seen the (hopefully temporary) closure of newspapers in Forks, Montesano and elsewhere.]

”Survival of the printed newspaper is not assured. Important newspapers in the Chicago area, northern California and elsewhere are either shut down forever or suspended until the outcome of local business conditions is known. More newspapers will follow them unless Congress acts to help these newspapers to continue to serve in a critical time.”

On the federal level, Congress has already provided some assistance through the Payroll Protection Program in the CARES Act. This is most welcome, and the NNA has joined other small business organizations in asking for extension of funding through December 2020. Also, small businesses should be permitted to apply for up to three forgivable loans, provided they can demonstrate previous loans were spent for either payroll or completion of essential business services. There are a variety of other steps Congress should take to keep small-town American enterprise alive to see the end of this crisis.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and others are standing up for local news, advocating that future covid-19 economic-impact legislation throw us a lifeline:

“Some of the most important guidance for families and businesses during this crisis has been highly localized,” Murray wrote to Senate leadership. “Local journalism has been providing communities answers to critical questions, including information on where to get locally tested, hospital capacity, road closures, essential business hours of operation, and shelter-in-place orders. During this unprecedented public health crisis, people need to have access to their trusted local news outlets for this reliable and sometimes life-saving information.”

The Chinook Observer and our dedicated, family-owned company, EO Media Group, expect and plan to survive this profound healthcare and economic challenge. At the same time, we deeply appreciate your support — moral, financial and otherwise. Please consider subscribing or providing whatever additional financial boost you can afford. (Details are on our webpage, www.chinookobserver.com.) This isn’t a lightly made request. We understand very well the deep financial strains all local people are under. We’ll do all we can for you, as long as we can.

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