OLYMPIA — A federal judge Thursday granted a preliminary injunction sought by Washington and 13 other states that halts some Trump administration changes that have slowed mail delivery ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
In his ruling, Judge Stanley Bastian, of the U.S. District Court of Eastern Washington, ordered a stop to several recent changes made by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) ahead of an election that will see a big increase in mail balloting due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Bastian’s order puts on hold key changes, such as forcing postal trucks to leave at specific times, even if mail hasn’t been loaded on them, or preventing those trucks to return to facilities to get more mail, both of which can result in delivery delays.
And it may require in some instances that USPS reconnect, replace or reassemble mail-processing machines in some facilities, if they have been deemed unable to process mail for the general election according to first-class delivery standards.
The order says USPS must continue to treat all election-related mail as first class.
Thursday’s order by Bastian comes after Washington and other states alleged that recent changes and reductions by the Trump administration could delay delivery of ballots and disenfranchise voters this fall. Colorado and Oregon, which also vote by mail like Washington, are among the plaintiffs.
That legal challenge against U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, President Donald Trump and USPS comes as the president has routinely sought to cast doubt on the safety of voting by mail as he trails in election polls.
In remarks Thursday, Bastian cited the president’s repeated public disparagement of voting by mail in tweets and other remarks, such as calling them “rigged” without evidence.
“Although not necessarily apparent on the surface, at the heart of DeJoy’s and
the Postal Service’s actions is voter disenfranchisement,” Bastian wrote in his order.
“This is evident in President Trump’s highly partisan words and tweets, the actual impact of the changes on primary elections that resulted in uncounted ballots, and recent attempts and lawsuits by the Republican National Committee and President
Trump’s campaign to stop the States’ efforts to bypass the Postal Service by
utilizing ballot drop boxes, as well as the timing of the changes,” he added.
And Bastian noted that of the mail-processing machines that have been removed this year, “it was determined that 72% of machines removed, were removed in counties won by Hillary Clinton” in 2016.
Bastian described the changes as a “political attack on the Postal Service” that could not only hurt voters but could impede the states’ abilities to count popular votes that would determine the electoral college.
“These free and fair elections depend on mail service,” said Bastian at another point.
Election experts in Washington and across the nation have said there is no evidence that universal mail balloting is particularly vulnerable to large-scale fraud.
In Washington, state and local elections officials use a wide range of measures — from special envelopes to checking voter signatures — to make sure ballots are valid.
Observers from both the Republican and Democratic parties are allowed to monitor vote-counting. King County even has webcams for people to watch the work as it happens.
In a statement Thursday, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson lauded Bastian’s ruling.
“Today’s victory protects a critical institution for our country,” the attorney general said in prepared remarks. “Americans can now confidently vote by mail and have their voices heard.”
In mid-August, at the same time Ferguson announced his lawsuit, DeJoy — a recent Trump appointee and longtime GOP fundraiser — released a statement saying he would suspend some changes. But the extent of the changes — along with which policies were being suspended — has remained unclear.
In Thursday’s hearing, attorneys for the state of Washington argued that USPS had acknowledged its changes have slowed mail delivery. Those acknowledgments have come through DeJoy’s own testimony to U.S. Congress, in letters this summer to state election officials, and in a recent postcard to Washington voters that provided misleading information.
An attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice representing the Trump administration admitted some of those delays, but said the situation has improved since the changes began.
U.S. Department of Justice attorney Joseph Borson also contended that USPS is prepared to handle any surge of election mail, which he added represents only a small proportion of total mail volume.
And Borson argued that no changes have been made to how USPS treats election ballots in terms of delivery time. But Bastian jumped in, asking about a recent USPS flyer sent to the judge and other Washingtonians. That postcard erroneously suggested that Washington’s registered voters request a ballot early, even though the state automatically sends out ballots.
“If nothing has changed, why did I get a warning yesterday for my own personal ballot saying things had changed and that I need to plan accordingly? Bastian said.
Thursday’s hearing comes after Bastian in late August ordered USPS to provide information on the number of mail-sorting machines and blue collection boxes that it slated for removal and provide other information about its recent changes to delivery in the run-up to a presidential election that will depend heavily on voting by mail.
That order required the Trump administration to provide specifics about the extent of the changes that critics worry could hurt mail voting as more Americans than ever are expected to cast mail ballots amid a global pandemic.
The information sought by Washington and other states included specifics on notable USPS policy changes that could delay mail, like new rules on overtime rules, restrictions on late delivery trips by postal trucks and limits on post-office hours.
And they have sought information on the number of mail-sorting or processing machines, as well as blue collection boxes, that were slated for removal, and whether they will be reinstalled before the Nov. 3 election.
Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, also hailed Thursday’s order, calling it “a step forward.”
In an interview, Dimondstein said that DeJoy’s commitments under oath before U.S. Congress to protect the timely delivery of election mail had eased some of his concerns.
But the union — which represents some 200,000 postal workers, according to its website — remains opposed to a host of changes, including the USPS policy allowing mail to be left behind in facilities when trucks leave, against which “we’ve been vehement in our opposition from day one,” he said.
“Our motto is never to delay mail, our workers treat it as if it is their own,” said Dimondstein. “We want to do that every day, all year round and for generations.”