BY ANDY SULLIVAN AND DAVID SHEPARDSON
Ahead of a presidential election that could see up to half of U.S. voters cast their ballots by mail, the U.S. Postal Service is warning some states that they need to provide more time for those votes to be counted.
The Postal Service has told at least three states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Washington — there is “significant risk” voters will not have enough time to complete their ballots and return them on time under current state laws, which allow them to request ballots just days before the election.
The letters highlight the possibility that a meaningful number of mail votes in the Nov. 3 presidential election might go uncounted if they are returned too late.
“State and local election officials must understand and take into account our operational standards and recommended timelines,” Postal Service spokeswoman Martha Johnson said. She did not respond to a question about how many states in total got warning letters.
Election officials have scrambled to prepare for a deluge of mail ballots as Americans avoid public gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has prompted many states to make it easier to vote by mail.
The Postal Service itself has gotten pulled into a political fight, with Republican President Donald Trump on Thursday saying he objected to providing funds for the struggling service or mail voting as part of a coronavirus relief package.
Trump, who is trailing Democratic rival Joe Biden in opinion polls, has railed against widespread mail voting, saying without evidence that it could lead to fraud.
Biden and other top Democrats have accused Trump of trying to discourage mail voting because he believes doing so would boost his re-election chances.
Election experts say mail voting is as secure as any other method.
TOO LITTLE TIME?
The Postal Service has warned some states that allowing voters to request ballots less than a week before the election does not leave enough time to print up the ballot, mail it to the voter and have it returned.
“There is significant risk that the voter will not have sufficient time to complete and mail the completed ballot back to election officials in time for it to arrive by the state’s return deadline,” Postal Service General Counsel Thomas Marshall wrote in a July 29 letter to Michigan’s top election official seen by Reuters.
Half of the states allow voters to request an absentee ballot within seven days of an election. The Postal Service recommends that mail ballots should be completed and in the mail back to election offices by that point, according to Marshall’s letter.
Ohio, Michigan and several other states with tight deadlines have so far not pushed them back.
Pennsylvania’s secretary of state asked the state Supreme Court to allow ballots to be counted if they are received up to three days after the Nov. 3 election, rather than on Election Day.
Marshall also encouraged election officials to use its first-class mail service to ensure prompt delivery, rather than the cheaper and slower bulk-mail rate.
In past elections the Postal Service has given priority to all political and election mail, no matter the postage rate, according to workers and the service’s internal watchdog.
“If this letter aims to backtrack on that collaboration or the promise of prioritization of election mail, that would be very concerning,” said Tracy Wimmer, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of State, which oversees elections.
Roughly 0.25% of mail ballots were rejected in 2016 because they arrived too late, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
Problems with mail ballots have marred many primary elections this year. Voters in Georgia reported not getting requested mail ballots, while in New York a judge ordered election officials to count thousands of ballots they had rejected for missing that state’s deadline.
The issue has taken on added urgency in recent weeks, as cost-cutting measures put in place by Trump’s new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, have led to widespread mail delays.
“They’re not moving as fast as they normally would, and I think we know that,” Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said at a news conference on Wednesday. He urged voters to complete their ballots as quickly as possible.