As last-minute battles in swing states like Pennsylvania and Minnesota continue to play out over the deadline for counting mail ballots, a federal judge issued a stern order on Friday, demanding improved monitoring and performance of on-time election mail delivery by the United States Postal Service.
Judge Emmet Sullivan of the US District Court for the District of Columbia ordered postal supervisors to implement "extraordinary measures" to improve lagging mail delivery times in 22 postal districts in more than a dozen states.
Sullivan also required the USPS to immediately begin providing up-to-date data on election mail and an explanation for any instances in which the on-time delivery rate falls below 90%.
The USPS is also required, per the order, to make a representative available to the court who can "discuss and answer questions about the Postal Service’s current plans and processes as they relate to the processing of Election Mail."
The order comes after the USPS released data to the court showing a growing struggle to deliver mail on time in 10 states. Still, the agency denied in court that any “additional relief is necessary” to ensure that ballots are delivered on time.
Asked at a status hearing on Friday afternoon about whether the Postal Service can handle changes to its procedure this late in the game, the agency's executive vice president, Kristin Seaver, said, “The train has left the station, and we are in hyperfocus on executing the plan.”
“It is a significant undertaking when you’re dealing with 30,000 units, over 400,000 employees, five collective bargaining unit agreements,” she continued. “What the team is focused on is executing the plan — and if we do that well, we’ll serve the American people well. Calling an audible at this point is pretty high risk for us.”
During Friday’s hearing, Sullivan said the court has been overwhelmed by voicemails from people concerned about specific mail delay issues, including messages referencing a viral video of apparently abandoned mail in a post office in Miami-Dade County. Seaver said the agency is currently investigating the issue, and that people who see potential issues with election mail should call the postal hotline. The Postal Service's Office of Inspector General is also fielding complaints.
Concerns about the ability of the USPS to handle the influx of election mail during a pandemic have been playing out in a federal courtroom in Washington, DC, since August, when voting advocates filed a lawsuit alleging that procedural changes initiated by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump appointee, threatened the agency’s capability to deliver ballots on time.
While DeJoy has said those cost-cutting measures were suspended through Election Day, the Postal Service’s performance has continued to struggle under the weight of understaffing, high parcel volume, and the crush of political mail.
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This is particularly concerning for voters in states like Minnesota, where a court ruled Thursday that ballots received after Nov. 3 might not be counted, which could mean that some ballots already in the mail won’t arrive in time and will be set aside and invalidated.
Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh made a similar order regarding mail ballots in Wisconsin earlier this week, in which he declined to extend the deadline by which ballots must be received; the deadline extension in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, however, was upheld by the court.
The USPS warned most states this summer that ballots should be mailed no later than one week before Election Day, which is now just four days away; election analysts say that it is now too late to vote by mail in most places. They recommend that people who hold a mail-in ballot either use a ballot drop box, deliver it to a polling place, or vote provisionally in person.
At Friday’s hearing, Seaver wouldn’t say for sure whether she agrees with that assessment, but she did say getting ballots delivered on time was the agency’s main priority.
“Someone asked a question, ‘What are you nervous about?’ And we stared at them and said, ‘We’re nervous about everything! We want to do everything right. We want every ballot put in possession of the Postal Service to be properly handled and delivered on time,’” Seaver said. “You’re in the game. You have to play the game and run the plays. You have to have faith in the team, that they’re going to give it everything they have.”