Submitted by the Office of the Washingtons State Attorney General
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced on Aug. 18 he is leading a coalition of states that will file a lawsuit in federal court in Washington state challenging drastic operational changes at the U.S. Postal Service that threaten critical mail delivery and could undermine the national election in November. The Postal Service cuts, including eliminating staff overtime, halting outgoing mail processing at state distribution centers and removing critical mail sorting equipment, threaten the timely delivery of mail to millions of Americans who rely on the Postal Service for everything from medical prescriptions to ballots.
For example, the Postmaster General is implementing plans to stop processing outgoing mail at three of the state’s five distribution centers: those in Wenatchee, Yakima and Tacoma. This will result in mail delays that will impact Washingtonians who rely on the Postal Service for prescriptions and Social Security payments.
Ferguson’s lawsuit asserts that the Postmaster-General implemented these drastic changes to mail service unlawfully, and seeks to stop the service reductions.
The changes at the Postal Service come as President Donald Trump has continued to claim without evidence that widespread vote-by-mail will lead to a fraudulent election. Washington state has allowed elections to be conducted completely by mail-in ballot since 2005 and mandated the practice statewide in 2011. The state has not experienced voter fraud at any level of significance.
“For partisan gain, President Trump is attempting to destroy a critical institution that is essential for millions of Americans,” Ferguson said. “We rely on the Postal Service for our Social Security benefits, prescriptions — and exercising our right to vote. Our coalition will fight to protect the Postal Service and uphold the rule of law in federal court.”
Recent changes at the Postal Service instituted by Trump-appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy have already resulted in mail delays.
Those changes include:
• Eliminating staff overtime, even if necessary to complete the day’s work;
• Prohibiting mail carriers from making return trips to distribution centers, which requires late-arriving mail to be left for delivery the following day;
• Decommissioning sorting machines, reducing sorting capacity by 10 percent;
• Removing mailboxes; and
• No longer treating all election mail as first-class mail regardless of the amount of postage paid, forcing state election officials to get election mail out sooner or pay first-class postage to ensure timely delivery.
Postal Service changes harm Washington state
The Postal Service is implementing plans to stop processing outgoing mail at three of Washington state’s five distribution centers: those in Wenatchee, Yakima and Tacoma. This means all outgoing letters originating in the areas surrounding these cities, including ballots, must travel to the two remaining facilities in Seattle and Spokane.
Closing these centers significantly harms rural communities, often significantly increasing the distance mail must travel. Mail sent from one address to another in the same town would have to travel all the way to one of the remaining distribution centers and back again before being delivered. For example, a letter sent from Yakima to a location across town will be sent all the way to Spokane for processing and then back to Yakima.
Changes impact vote-by-mail elections
While Washington state counts ballots that are postmarked by election day, even if they arrive after, other states require that ballots be received on or before election day to be counted.
Slow mail service has multiple implications, as the Seattle Times editorial board noted recently.
For example, state law allows Washington voters to change their address up to eight days before an election and receive a mailed ballot. However, the Times noted, if Postal Service delays slow the delivery of their ballots, they will not receive their ballot timely, which will impair their ability to vote.
President Trump stated last week that the service cuts at the Postal Service have a partisan motive.
“They need that money in order to make the Post Office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. They don’t have the money to do the universal mail-in voting. So, therefore, they can’t do it, I guess,” Trump said last week.
Ferguson has repeatedly refuted Trump’s unfounded claims about mail-in voting.
“In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative that we fiercely protect the democratic right to vote for all Americans, and simultaneously, the physical safety of voters,” Ferguson said earlier this month. “Expansion of vote-by-mail options across the country allows us to achieve both.”
Impacts on seniors and veterans
Postal Service cuts threaten timely mail deliveries for a range of important services, from prescriptions to utility bills. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many Americans, especially seniors and other high-risk individuals, to rely increasingly on mail delivery services while they stay at home for their health. In general, seniors rely heavily on the mail to receive essentials like medications, Social Security benefits and even groceries.
The policy changes have already impacted our country’s veterans, who are reporting much longer wait times to receive mail-order prescription drugs. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, which provides broad health care services to veterans nationwide, fills about 80 percent of veteran prescriptions by mail. The VA processes about 120 million mail-order prescriptions per year — 470,000 a day. The Postal Service makes daily prescription deliveries to 330,000 veterans across the country.
Impacts on coalition partners
Record numbers of American residents are requesting absentee ballots in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For example, in Michigan, COVID-19 has increased reliance on voting by mail by more than 50 percent. In the state’s August election, a record 65 percent of votes were cast by mail. Michigan’s secretary of state received reports from some election officials that ballots took several weeks to reach voters — delays that will be exacerbated by Trump’s attempts to undermine the Postal Service.
In Wisconsin, around 2 million voters are expected to request an absentee ballot and vote by mail. In June, the Postal Service shut down four sorting machines used at its distribution center in downtown Milwaukee, Wis., and plans to remove three more. Staff shortages have cut the number of employees running each sorting machine in half. Election officials in Wisconsin now report that election mail takes about a week to arrive to voters in Madison.
These delays greatly increase the likelihood that mailed-in votes will miss election deadlines and threaten to disenfranchise a large swath of voters, particularly those most vulnerable to COVID-19.
Ferguson asserts that the Postmaster-General has acted outside of his authority to implement changes to the postal system, and did not follow the proper procedures under federal law.
The law requires that changes at the U.S. Postal Service that cause a nationwide impact in mail service must be submitted to the Postal Regulatory Commission. The commission then evaluates the proposal through a procedure that includes public notice and comment. The Trump Administration’s failure to perform this mandatory duty deprived the states of their statutory right to notice and comment on USPS’ nationwide service changes.
Ferguson’s lawsuit seeks to block the unlawful service reductions and operational changes at the Postal Service.
Washington is leading the lawsuit, joined by Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Assistant Attorneys General Kristin Beneski, Nathan Bays, Andrew Hughes and Cristina Sepe, as well as Deputy Solicitors General Emma Grunberg, Tera Heintz and Karl Smith, are handling the case for Washington.