OLYMPIA — A federal judge late Friday ordered the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to report to the court its daily sweeps of some postal facilities in Michigan and Wisconsin to make sure ballots are being sent and delivered ahead of Tuesday’s elections.
The order by Judge Stanley Bastian of the U.S. District Court of Eastern Washington requires the Postal Service to “make every effort to deliver those ballots by 8:00 PM local time on Election Day as required by Michigan and Wisconsin law, including by using Priority Mail Express and/or other extraordinary measures,” according to court records.
The reports must be made to the court starting Sunday and running through Nov. 10, according to the order.
Bastian’s ruling comes after Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office asked for a hearing Friday on short notice to address concerns about slow mail delivery.
The hearing is part of a case brought this summer by Washington and 13 other states that sought to stop changes made by USPS that slowed delivery, even as the practice of voting by mail explodes amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Bastian in September ordered USPS to halt some of its changes until after the elections to make sure Americans aren’t deprived of their right to vote in what has been a tense and polarizing election year.
In Friday’s hearing, Washington state Solicitor General Noah Purcell said data showed improved mail delivery across the country since slowdowns this summer, when mail-processing machines were disconnected and other changes slowed delivery across the country.
Since then, at least 100 pieces of mail-processing equipment have been reconnected, Purcell said, and 95% of election mail has been delivered according to first class standards.
But Purcell said data showed delivery problems in Southeastern Michigan’s Detroit area and in the region around Lakeland, Wisconsin. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have been campaigning heavily in those two states, which in 2016 helped deliver a surprise victory to Trump.
Purcell asked Bastian to take a number of steps, including sweeps of postal facilities to make sure ballots aren’t being stranded, having inspectors in the facilities to speak with workers, and a detailed election plan by USPS to avoid any problems in the two regions.
“These problems are unacceptably interfering in the public’s right to vote,” Purcell told Bastian in the hearing.
In response, U.S. Department of Justice attorney Joseph Borson said that the data released on delivery times don’t necessarily paint the full picture, and that in some cases, smaller numbers of mail volume meant a few slow ballots could be skewing percentages.
“These ballots are definitely getting delivered … in time for deadlines,” Borson said, adding that USPS already implemented an election plan to make sure ballots are delivered to and from election offices.
Bastian’s order also grants attorneys for Michigan and Wisconsin to “have reasonable access to USPS facilities to monitor compliance with the Court’s orders.”