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Judge orders sweep of postal facilities after 300,000 mail ballots not shown as delivered

The U.S. Postal Service has been ordered to sweep for undelivered mail-in ballots.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

A federal judge has ordered U.S. Postal Service inspectors to sweep postal facilities Tuesday in several locations — including in six battleground states — to ensure that any mail-in ballots left behind are immediately sent out for delivery.

The order came after the Postal Service said in court filings that nearly 300,000 ballots had been scanned into the U.S. mail system since Oct. 24 but had not been scanned again to show they had been delivered — including more than 11,000 in Pennsylvania, nearly 16,000 in Florida and more than 6,000 in Michigan.

On-time performance for mail ballots has also dropped significantly in recent days, falling off by more than 5 percentage points over a nine-day period, from 94.7% last Wednesday to 89.59% Monday, the agency said.

The last-minute order on Tuesday by Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in Washington, D.C., directed the law enforcement arm of the Postal Service to inspect facilities in central Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta, Houston, south Florida, Arizona and a few other locations by 3 p.m. Eastern.

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The order is part of one of several lawsuits against the Postal Service over cost-cutting measures that slowed mail delivery this year and raised concerns that mail-in ballots would not be delivered on time.

Recent data have shown that on-time mail delivery in some parts of the country has dropped to levels lower than in July, when millions of Americans went days, even weeks, without mail.

The order focuses on postal districts that have struggled to process ballots on time, located in states that will not count ballots received after election day.

“No one should be disenfranchised for something that is out of their control,” said Shankar Duraiswamy, an attorney for Vote Forward, a voting rights organization that filed the lawsuit prompting Sullivan’s order. “It’s important that the Postal Service do everything in its power to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”

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The nearly 300,000 ballots without destination scans raised alarm among voting rights groups that some mail ballots could be delivered too late to be counted.

Missing destination scan does not automatically mean that a ballot was not delivered, the Postal Service said in a court filing. Some ballots are pulled from the automated processing system and delivered directly to elections officials, they said. Other mail cannot be sorted automatically because of physical flaws like smudged barcodes.

Since Oct. 29, inspectors have been working daily at all 220 facilities that process mail ballots, scanning for delayed mail and ensuring that “no ballots are held for postage due,” said Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer.

“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.

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The Postal Service raised concerns about complying with the judge’s order, saying that they didn’t have enough inspectors to finish the sweep in the required time.

Officials were unable to expedite the review process to run from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. Eastern, as required by Sullivan “without significantly disrupting preexisting activities on the day of the Election,” said attorneys for the postal service. Instead, scheduled reviews have been underway since 4 p.m and will continue until 8 p.m. Eastern.

The Postal Service also identified 27 facilities where USPS Office of Inspector General personnel are stationed, including facilities in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Some postal areas in swing states where Sullivan ordered Postal Service inspectors to sweep for mail ballots had far lower performance scores than the national average, agency data show.

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In Atlanta, 57% of ballots were processed on time Saturday, and 61% on Monday, the data show. Georgia will not count ballots that arrive after the polls close.

In central Pennsylvania, which includes a broad swath of the state outside Philadelphia, 52.6% of ballots headed back to election clerks were processed on time Saturday, and 69% on Monday, according to the data.

In Detroit, where ballots will not be counted if they arrive after 8 p.m. Tuesday, about 75% of ballots were processed on time Saturday; and less than 78% on Monday, according to the Postal Service data.

Sullivan has presided over several recent lawsuits targeting delays at the Postal Service. He issued an order last week directing USPS executives to immediately rescind guidelines that hampered mail delivery over the summer and boost the numbers of late and extra truck trips if necessary.


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