Though we’ve known for four years that the 2020 US election cycle would be even more fraught than the strange and painful fall of the 2016 elections, most of us still find ourselves a little disoriented these days. For some, the urgency to remove Trump from office has immobilized us. For others, it’s fortified us into action to get out the vote and to sway those who are undecided, apathetic, and reluctant.
In the final five weeks before the election of a lifetime, we asked writers to consider the undecided voter and contribute compelling arguments and ideas for making the world right. Some contributors sent us work that takes on issues with precision and gravity. Others sent us different work, perhaps an even more visceral snapshot of this alarming moment — a one-act play, an open letter, a story of exile. New writing will be published weekdays; we believe its wisdom and strength will help us all navigate the uncertainty ahead.
In The Blues Brothers, the owner of a Chicago diner, played by Aretha Franklin, breaks into song. As she sings the opening bars of “Think,” three women at the counter rise and become the chorus, their voices in harmony and their steps in sync. One of them, played by Brenda Bryant Corbett, wears a United States Postal Service uniform.
Her screen time was as memorable as it was short, but imagine Corbett beyond the choreography of the dance number, as she followed the familiar path on her mail route, delivering ballots to local voters and returning them safely to be counted.
Imagine her backstory, one that began long before her moment in the diner. During Reconstruction, post office jobs became a path to a social connection and financial security for Black citizens. That truth also made the post office a target, especially for Jim Crow politicians who relied on backlash against Black progress.
The president has often attacked mail-in voting, but his words have never been as purposeful as those in the Postal Service’s mission statement.
The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people.
Mail-in balloting, a trusted reality since the Civil War, pairs the franchise with mail service, one government service bolstering another. While Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has tried to destroy mail equipment and trust, whistleblowers and defiant workers have continued the “basic function and obligation” central to their work.
Voters who have doubts about mail-in ballots should understand that the attacks on the post office have not shaken the confidence of their customers. An August Morning Consult poll ranked the USPS as one of the United States’ most loved brands. Other polling shows the Trump brand in low regard. So here we have one of the country’s most trusted nameplates questioned by one of its most questionable.
Still, the doubt is understandable. It has been a year of protests around racial violence and voter suppression. With calls to dismantle unchecked police power and demands to protect free and fair elections, 2020 is the right time to examine how and when institutions fail and how they can be sustained.
States are reporting record early voting and mail-in ballots, and drop-off returns. Doubt can drive activism as well as certainty can. Many of the votes already counted may be evidence of uncertainty driving early action.
The Postal Service motto calls for “the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” a call that could also describe the moves of Aretha Franklin, Brenda Bryant Corbett, and the other patrons who join the chorus. Each voice registering. Guided steps moving in time.
If you enjoyed this essay, please share it with an undecided voter in your life, and please consider contributing to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
Ravi Howard is the author of two novels, Like Trees, Walking and Driving the King. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, Atlanta, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Florida State University.