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Postal service warns it may not be able to deliver ballots in time

Aug 14, 2020, 2:15 PM
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CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - AUGUST 13: A postal vehicles sits in front of a United State Postal Service facility on August 13, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

(CNN) — The US Postal Service is warning states that voters risk not getting their ballots back to election offices in time because of lags in mail delivery, according to letters reviewed by CNN, adding a new level of uncertainty to the coming presidential election and leaving states to ascertain how to adjust.

Multiple states received communications from the USPS general counsel outlining standard mail delivery times and prices leading up to the November election and warning secretaries of state that election laws established by the states would not necessarily guarantee that mail-in ballots will be received in time to be counted.

The letters predate President Donald Trump’s most recent attacks on mail-in voting, including on Thursday when he said he opposed giving billions in funding to the postal service because doing so would allow increased mail-in voting. The changes are a result of previously planned cost-cutting measures, put in place partly as a reaction to the President’s extensive criticism of the US Postal Service as a money loser that does not charge enough for its services, combined with the coronavirus pandemic. Union officials have been warning that newly implemented measures would affect mail-in voting in November.

The popularity of voting by mail has exploded during the pandemic and it’s expected that Democratic voters plan to take advantage of expanded mail-in voting access more than Republicans.

News of the letters comes a little less than two weeks after the US Postal Service definitively said in a statement that it had the capacity to handle the added volume of mail-in voting anticipated in November.

CNN obtained letters sent to Washington, Pennsylvania, California, Michigan, Maine, Oregon, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina. The Utah lieutenant governor’s office confirmed to CNN that it received a letter at the end of July. 

“Certain deadlines concerning mail-in ballots, particularly with respect to new residents who register to vote shortly before Election Day, appear to be incongruous with the Postal Service’s delivery standards,” USPS General Counsel Thomas Marshall wrote to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. “This mismatch creates a significant risk that some ballots will not be returned by mail in time to be counted under your laws as we understand them.”

Letters detail timing break down

The letters list standard mail delivery times and prices for first class and marketing mail, the two types of mail USPS sends. Many states use the nonprofit marketing mail rate to send election mail, including absentee and mail-in ballots and ballot applications to voters.

The letters state that election mail must be sent from voters by first class mail, which is more expensive than the nonprofit marketing rate.

“State or local election officials may generally use either First-Class Mail or Marketing Mail to mail blank ballots to voters,” the letters state.

First class mail takes between two and five days to be received, while marketing mail takes between three and 10 days to be received, according to USPS. That, according to Pennsylvania’s secretary of commonwealth, is a longer a delivery time than what was factored in for the primaries in June, according to a filing in a related court case.

The slower delivery is, according to the court filing, a likely outcome of recent changes put in place by the post office that have been criticized for putting at risk the ability to conduct vote by mail across the country. As a result, Pennsylvania said it is willing to extend its deadline to receive ballots to up to three days after the election, provided they are mailed by Election Day.

USPS said the letters were intended to advise “election officials to be mindful of the potential inconsistencies between the Postal Service’s delivery standards, which have been in place for a number of years and have not changed, and the provisions of state law,” in a statement.

“During every election cycle, the Postal Service conducts regular outreach with state and local election officials regarding our mailing requirements, delivery standards and best practices for enabling voting by mail,” a USPS spokesperson said in a statement. “The Postal Service is well prepared and has ample capacity to deliver America’s election mail. However, the increases in volume and the effect of when volumes were mailed in the primary elections presented a need to ensure the Postal Service’s recommendations were reemphasized to elections officials.”

Secretaries of state implementing changes already

Both Michigan and Ohio’s secretaries of state offices said the letters reflect changes the states were already implementing to ensure that mail-in and absentee ballots would be mailed and received in time to be counted in the election.

Jon Keeling, spokesman for the Ohio Secretary of State, said the letter “reinforces reforms we’ve been working on since the primaries,” which include the design of the mail-in ballots so they stand out among other pieces of mail.

Michigan Secretary of State spokeswoman Tracy Wimmer said the letter “reiterates the importance of a number of things we are already doing,” like “working with USPS officials in Michigan to ensure that election mailings are prioritized in their system.”

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman was the first secretary to publicize that she had received the USPS letter.

Wyman was initially concerned when she received the letter, because Washington has historically sent mail-in ballots to every registered voter by first class mail at a nonprofit bulk mail price. She was concerned the letter indicated that if they sent their election mail at the nonprofit rate, they would have longer delivery times.

Wyman clarified with USPS officials in a call earlier this week that the state would still receive the nonprofit marketing bulk rate but get first class mail service when sending ballots to voters.

“I was certainly concerned that this was maybe some sort of messaging to let us know that if we did our mailing at a nonprofit low rate that we would have very long delivery times,” Wyman told CNN in a phone interview. “They chose their words carefully … they basically said, yeah, the mail delivery times would be what we’re used to.”

If Wyman had to change from paying the nonprofit bulk rate to paying the first class rate, it would have cost her $2.64 million to send 4.8 million ballots, as opposed to the $432,000 it will cost her to send the ballots at nine cents apiece via the nonprofit bulk rate.

As a state that has sent ballots to every registered voter before, Wyman and her office have a close relationship with their USPS counterparts. Wyman said she worries for states that are new to mail-in voting options who don’t have as strong relationships already established with the post office.

Wyman said she had a call “every day with the postal service” leading up to Washington’s primary. “It’s kind of just our relationship that we have with the postal service,” she said.

This story has been updated with additional comment from USPS and secretaries of state offices.

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