Judge considers prompting USPS to take more steps to deliver ballots on time

Orders from Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington, DC, could come as soon as Friday night, according to a court hearing. The Postal Service had said earlier Friday that it is taking “extraordinary measures” to collect some mail this Sunday that it normally would not, but the judge questioned whether the expanded operations could happen even sooner, on Saturday, or if more could be done.

Sullivan indicated he may put an additional order on the Postal Service so that “American voters’ ballots are processed and delivered in a timely manner,” he said late Friday night at the end of a three-hour hearing about the Postal Service’s efforts to deliver ballots before Election Day.

The Postal Service’s delivery performance in the days before the presidential election has become a major point of contention — especially in battleground states where thousands of voters are mailing ballots instead of visiting polling places in person because of the coronavirus pandemic — and Democratic state leaders and other voting access groups have pushed for judicial oversight of the agency’s work.

Since Monday, the USPS has handled more than 7.1 million ballots, according to court documents — well over 1.5 million each day.

Sullivan’s extraordinary attention to the US Postal Service — which has included daily hearings and requiring data reports about mail processing this week — comes four days before the election, in which millions of Americans plan to or already have voted by mail.

Plans for next 4 days

At times, Sullivan’s questioning of a top USPS retail and delivery operations official, Kristin Seaver, who testified Friday, focused on whether the Postal Service had hired enough staff to handle the election mail onslaught.

Seaver didn’t provide exact numbers but said the Postal Service had boosted staffing and was seeing increases in letter mail because of the election and in packages because of more orders due to the pandemic. She said staffing increases are comparable to what they may be for the holiday season.

On Friday, the USPS said it will collect mail on Sunday for some routes (there is typically no Sunday collection), and conduct early collections on Monday and Tuesday with ballot delivery to election offices on the same day. Carriers will also check for outgoing mail at “every residential mailbox” and post offices will set up special lanes for people to drop off ballots.

Sullivan put the force of the court behind the Postal Service’s “extraordinary measures” plans on Friday afternoon, certifying them with a judicial order.

In some key battleground states, the Republican Party has contested the validity of ballots that voters mail before Election Day but are delivered to election officials later — making the Postal Service’s efforts in the coming days key to getting votes in on time to be counted.

The Postal Service has faced intense political criticism, and several lawsuits and court orders, after it planned policy changes that could slow down the mail. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy also has weathered inquiries related to his close ties to President Donald Trump, who’s attempted to sow distrust in mail-in voting, which Democratic voters are expected to use more widely than Republicans, according to polling.

Sullivan said he hoped to see a proposal Friday night from the Postal Service and groups that are suing it, and that he would set a plan by court order soon after.

He set another hearing, where a senior Postal Service official is set to appear, for 10 a.m. Saturday.

Sullivan, who’s well known in Washington for his skepticism of the executive branch and experience handling politically sensitive cases, praised the Postal Service’s employees and its managers for their professionalism and hard work. He called it a “Herculean effort to make the system work” and offered a “judicial shout-out” to postal workers to mark his admiration.

He also encouraged the public visiting post offices, “If you see something, say something.”

He had noted how the public could help keep an eye on the Postal Service’s efficiency: “The public can make things happen. I can make things happen too.”

The US Postal Service announcement earlier Friday detailed several “extraordinary measures” it is implementing aimed at making sure mail-in ballots are delivered in time to get counted — as new court filings showed that the agency moved fewer ballots on-time in critical battleground states on Thursday than it did the previous day.

In addition to plans to process more mail on Sunday and collect ballots more promptly from voters in the coming days, the USPS said it will try to intercept any ballots with misprinted bar codes that determine where the mail is funneled through the USPS system. If these issues are caught early, it would speed up processing times.

Ballot processing slowing down in key states

Meanwhile, court filings on Friday show that the agency’s issues moving ballots on time in key states also dragged down national processing scores, which measure how many ballots were moved through the postal system on time. The number for completed ballots being returned to election offices dropped on Thursday, as did the number of blank ballots still heading to voters.

Because Election Day is only days away, these processing scores are taking on even greater importance. Dips in performance could mean ballots don’t arrive at election offices in time to get counted. In more than half of the states, mail ballots don’t count if they arrive after the polls close.

In all, USPS says it processed more than 1.7 million ballots on Thursday. But USPS says that on a national level, they moved fewer ballots on time on Thursday than on Wednesday, the score dropping from 97% to 95%. The numbers were even worse in some of the most critical battlegrounds.

The Central Pennsylvania district scored the lowest, moving only 71% of ballots on time Thursday. In the Detroit area, they only moved 80% of the ballots on time. Northern Ohio, central Florida, parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the Mid-Carolinas also saw numbers well below the national average — in the mid-80s.

These figures do not include ballots being returned through what USPS calls “local turnaround.” That’s the process USPS says some post offices have implemented, where ballots are being delivered directly to local boards of election — they are postmarked, but don’t go through normal mail processing.

In a court filing on Friday, USPS blamed the latest delays on staffing shortages due to Covid-19.

“The Postal Service has seen issues with staffing availability arise in the identified Districts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, among other reasons,” USPS said. “At the same time that staffing unavailability has become a factor, there has been an increase volume in package and market dominant products.”

To fix the issues, USPS has provided “multiple layers of operational oversight,” is coordinating closely with the USPS inspector general, and has been holding daily troubleshooting calls with problem areas.

This story has been updated with further developments Friday.

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