U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez speaks about the recent changes to the U.S. Postal Service during a press conference in front to the U.S Post Office on Wednesday in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonalez denounced what he called voter obstruction on behalf of the U.S. postmaster general and vowed to protect and fund the postal service on which millions, including veterans and the eldery, depend, he said Wednesday outside the main post office here.

Gonzalez began his news conference by referencing the U.S. Postal Service’s long history and detailing its current standing as a “lifeline.”

“(It’s) a system that’s been with us since before our independence — since 1775 when Benjamin Franklin served as our first postmaster in this country,” Gonzalez said. “We have always supported this institution. (There’s) never been a time like this, where our president has opposed us, has tried to defund us…”

The Democratic congressman’s comments come amid a national debate about the service’s role in the upcoming election — and a day after U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy agreed to rescind orders that threatened its ability to process mail-in votes.

DeJoy, a Trump supporter who the president appointed in May to lead the service, was widely criticized for recently dismantling and removing equipment needed to count ballots.

Those initiatives, however, did not reach the Rio Grande Valley’s post offices, Gonzalez said Wednesday.

“It is fully operational here in South Texas, and we’re going to continue to assure that it stays that way,” the congressman said.

DeJoy walked back those efforts Tuesday, assuring the public that retail hours at post offices would not change, mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes would remain where they are, no mail processing facilities would be closed, and overtime would continue to be approved as needed.

“To avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded,” the postmaster general said in a statement Tuesday.

Still, President Donald J. Trump has expressed an unwillingness to fund the service, which has been under financial duress for years. Gonzalez equated the president’s stance with the defunding of senior citizens who rely on the service for medications and Social Security checks.

One in five Americans pay their bills through the postal service, and in 2019, USPS delivered 1.2 billion prescriptions.

“Over 50% of meds sent by mail are (sent) to seniors 65 and older,” Gonzalez said.

About 80% of veterans also rely on the service for medications, and “900,000 active military (service members) expect to be able to mail in their ballots through this service,” he added. “We need to stop the obstruction of voting. We need to make it easier to vote.”

Gonzalez said he will fly back to Washington on Friday to vote Saturday on the Deliver for America Act, which aims to pour $25 billion into the postal system to ensure it’s properly funded and functional.

“We had a lot of opposition, but I think the American people have raised their voice to members of both parties across the country (about) the importance of their postal service working at full capacity,” he said. “There may be folks on the other side of the aisle who may not vote with us, but that’s something that they’ll have to answer back in their home district, but I think the vast majority of Americans want to assure that the United States Postal Service is fully funded.”

His office has already received hundreds of calls from concerned citizens and retired letter carriers, who have offered to return to work on a voluntary basis to make sure people in South Texas get their mail and can participate in the election process via the service.

“So it’s clearly a very, very important election for the American people, and I think people in South Texas are not taking this election lightly,” Gonzalez said.

He dismissed the president’s claim of rampant mail voter fraud, saying that type of illegal activity rarely happens.

“Obviously, when that happens it needs to be reported, it needs to be tended to, but it’s very, very rare, and experts across the country have proven that voting by mail is a very, very safe method to vote. Now, can you have discrepancies?” he asked rhetorically. “You can have that at a ballot box, you can have that on a computer, you can have that voting in person by writing — there’s always a potential for human error or human fraud, which we need to be vigilant and assure that never happens.”

Still, South Texas has seen its fair share of allegations, which have surfaced numerous times in court trials throughout the years. Lupe Rivera, a former Weslaco commissioner, lost his seat in 2015 after a judge found, among other findings, that mail-in ballots had been forged during a 2013 election.

Similar allegations were made during a recent trial involving Mission Mayor Armando O’Caña, with several people testifying his campaign illegally submitted voters’ mail-in ballots. A visiting judge voided the election, but the decision was overturned by the 13th Court of Appeals.

In June 2017, however, a Mission mailman was sentenced to 18 months after he admitted he sold information about people who requested absentee ballots.