USPS disregards court order to conduct sweeps in 12 postal districts after more than 300,000 ballots can’t be traced

USPS disregards court order to conduct sweeps in 12 postal districts after more than 300,000 ballots can’t be traced

www.washingtonpost.com - Jacob Bogage, Business Reporter, Christopher Ingraham, Reporter Covering All Things Data

But in a filing sent to the court just before 5 p.m., Justice Department attorneys representing the Postal Service said the agency would not abide by the order, to better accommodate inspectors’ schedules.

Attorney John Robinson, writing for the Justice Department, noted that the daily review process was already scheduled to occur from 4 to 8 p.m. on election night. “Given the time constraints set by this Court’s order, and the fact that Postal Inspectors operate on a nationwide basis, Defendants were unable to accelerate the daily review process to run from 12:30 pm to 3:00 pm without significantly disrupting preexisting activities on the day of the Election, something which Defendants did not understand the Court to invite or require.”

The agency disclosed Tuesday morning that 300,523 ballots nationwide had received incoming scans at postal processing plants but not exit scans, leaving voting rights advocates worried that hundreds of thousands of votes could be trapped in the mail system.

Sullivan denied an emergency hearing request from the NAACP, which brought the lawsuit against the Postal Service with a group of voters and other civil rights groups. But he told Justice Department attorneys to be “prepared to discuss the apparent lack of compliance with his order” at a previously scheduled Wednesday conference.

“This is super frustrating,” said Allison Zieve, an attorney representing the NAACP. “If they get all the sweeps done today in time, it doesn’t matter if they flouted the judge’s order. They say here they will get the sweeps done between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., but 8 p.m. is too late, and in some states 5 p.m. is too late.”

The Postal Service began election mail “all clear” sweeps in January, agency spokesman David Partenheimer wrote in an emailed statement, to search for misplaced political mail (such as campaign ads) and election mail (ballots, ballot applications and voter registration information).

Since Thursday, he said, agents from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the agency’s law enforcement arm, conducted daily reviews at 220 ballot processing facilities. Inspectors walk the facility and observe mail conditions and check daily political- and election-mail logs.

In the past 14 months, Partenheimer said, the Postal Service has processed more than 4.5 billion pieces of political and election mail, up 114 percent from the 2016 general-election cycle.

“Ballots will continue to be accepted and processed as they are presented to us and we will deliver them to their intended destination,” Partenheimer said.

Timely ballot processing scores, which indicate the proportion of ballots sorted, postmarked and transported within the agency’s one-to-three-day service window, worsened in the run-up to Election Day, according to data the agency submitted to the court. In 28 states, election officials must receive ballots by the end of Election Day to be counted.

Voting and postal experts say the mail agency should be able to process 97 percent of incoming ballots — or completed ballots sent to election officials. But data shows the Postal Service missed that mark seven out of eight days. And in the past five days, processing scores dropped, from 97.1 percent on Oct. 28 to 89.6 percent on Monday. (The Postal Service did not report Sunday data.)

In 17 postal districts that cover 151 electoral votes, Monday’s on-time processing rate was even lower: 81.1 percent.

Sullivan ordered officials from the Postal Inspection Service, the agency’s law enforcement arm, or the Postal Service Office of Inspector General, its independent watchdog, to inspect all processing facilities in the districts of Central Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Metro, Detroit, Colorado/Wyoming, Atlanta, Houston, Alabama, Northern New England (Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine), Greater South Carolina, South Florida, Lakeland (Wisconsin) and Arizona (which includes New Mexico) by 3 p.m.

Lawyers for the Postal Service cautioned that the ballot processing scores might be unreliable. The figures do not include “first mile” and “last mile” mail-handling steps that could add time to deliveries. The Postal Service has also encouraged local post offices to sort ballots themselves and make deliveries to election officials, rather than sending the items to regional processing plants.

More than 65 million Americans have voted using absentee ballots, according to the U.S. Elections Project, and more than 27 million mail ballots remained outstanding. Experts are encouraged by high ballot return rates in swing states that could soften the impact of mail delays. In Michigan, 85.6 percent of absentee ballots have been returned. In Wisconsin, 89.7 percent have been returned, and in Pennsylvania, 80.9 percent.

Even so, the Postal Service continued Tuesday to try to track down the more than 300,000 ballots it said had entered processing plants but could not be traced. The agency cautioned that number was likely high, and that clerks were hand-culling ballots at those facilities to expedite delivery. However, officials said they did not know how widespread that process was, and how many ballots could remain.

In 17 postal districts in swing states that account for 151 electoral votes, more than 81,000 ballots were untraceable. In Los Angeles, 48,120 ballots were missing, the most of any district. San Diego was next, with 42,543 unaccounted for.

“At this point,” said Zieve, “we don’t have any way of knowing if those ballots are of concern or if they aren’t.”

Sullivan has been more aggressive than judges in Pennsylvania, New York and Washington state to grant increased oversight of the mail. He has ordered the Postal Service to report daily data on ballot performance scores and to provide written explanations each day for underperforming districts.

He has scheduled daily hearings — some of which have included sworn testimony from postal executives — on the agency’s struggles. On Monday, he lamented the nation’s crazy-quilt of mail-in-voting rules, saying the system should be overhauled.

“When I read about the astronaut voting seamlessly from outer space, there must be a better way for Congress to address all these issues,” he said.

Sullivan contrasted the chaotic mishmash of Election Day rules with the relative simplicity of the federal income-tax deadline: “Think about it. Every year everyone knows to file taxes by April 15th. It’s seamless. If you don’t file, there’s penalties. But everyone knows — that’s a given.”

By contrast, state vote-by-mail deadlines present a spaghetti-like tangle for the Postal Service and voters to navigate.

“Postmarks matter, postmarks don’t matter. … Delivery matters, delivery after a date doesn’t matter. Why can’t there be one set of rules?” Sullivan said, concluding, “Someone needs to be tinkering with the system to make sure it works seamlessly and better for the American voters.”

Spencer Hsu contributed to this report.

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