OLYMPIA — Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson Tuesday sued President Donald Trump and his administration over changes to mail service that could potentially delay the delivery of ballots during the November election.
In his lawsuit, Ferguson alleged that the changes — like removing mail-processing equipment, shutting down postal distribution centers in Washington and limiting overtime for mail carriers — ran afoul of federal laws requiring the U.S. Postal Service to follow a specific process for making changes.
Even as Ferguson discussed his lawsuit in a Tuesday morning news conference, U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy released a statement saying he would suspend the changes to mail delivery until after the election.
DeJoy, who has faced mounting pressure over the changes, said in Tuesday’s prepared remarks he was suspending the changes to “avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail.”
The developments come after the president for months has disparaged mail voting and sought to sow distrust of the system ahead of the Nov. 3 elections.
Democrats in recent weeks have decried the Postal Service changes – which included stopping the processing of outbound mail in Yakima, Tacoma and Wenatchee – as a potential form of voter disenfranchisement.
While many states are expanding mail balloting for safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington has for years had a vote-by-mail statute.
On Tuesday, members of Washington’s Democratic congressional delegation – including U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Suzan DelBene – said they remained wary of the situation.
In statements and interviews, those lawmakers said they worried that the recent changes had already hurt people depending on mail delivery of bills, checks or medicine.
Jayapal’s office Tuesday shared with The Seattle Times seven messages received from constituents who feared, or reported having, slower mail delivery.
“I’m 80 years old and live in a senior living community where I normally receive my CPAP and insulin testing equipment by mail,” according to a message from one woman, adding that deliveries are taking longer than usual. “I’m worried about not receiving them in time.”
In an interview, Jayapal said she believed the Postal Service remains “very, very popular” with both Democrats and Republicans.
“I think the Trump administration really overplayed their hand, and did what they always do,” said Jayapal, a Seattle Democrat. “Which is throw out a trial balloon to see if they could get away with it.”
Asked about DeJoy’s reversal, Secretary of State Kim Wyman said she was “very happy to see that he’s walking that back.”
Regardless, Wyman said, she is working with county auditors on an emergency administrative law to make sure ballots mailed to Washington residents this fall can be returned on time.
That measure would require ballots sent near Election Day to be mailed first-class so voters get them in time, said Wyman. That would help those registering to vote in the days leading up to the election be sure their ballot arrives on time, she said.
“We’re still very confident as election officials across the state that our laws and the options that our voters have are going to ensure that their ballots are going to be delivered on time,” said Wyman, a Republican. “They’re going to receive them with enough time to vote and return them.”
Filed in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Washington, Ferguson’s 120-page lawsuit alleged, among other things, the Trump administration violated federal law by not following specific procedures while implementing the USPS changes.
Parts of the lawsuit – which Ferguson filed along with 13 other states – lays out allegations unfolding outside Washington.
Post Office hours have been cut in West Virginia and New Jersey, according to the lawsuit, and collection boxes have been removed in Montana, New York, Oregon and Pennsylvania.
Images of locked or removed USPS collection boxes have circulated on social media, including some said to be in Washington.
But Ernie Swanson, a regional spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, said collection boxes in Washington were not being removed due to agency changes.
“The collection boxes are removed when they have been vandalized to the point that they are no longer secure,” Swanson wrote in an email. “The boxes will be replaced.”
Wyman and Jayapal said they have not received any confirmed reports of boxes in Washington being locked or removed due to the changes.
Meanwhile, Jayapal said that postal workers have said DeJoy’s elimination of overtime was not necessarily happening across the board in Washington.
Wyman said postal officials “assured us that the overtime issue was just a procedural change, but overtime was still available, and they were going to prioritize election mail.”
The lawsuit also alleges 671 pieces of mail-processing equipment were slated for removal from postal facilities across the nation, particularly in presidential swing states like Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to the lawsuit.
That tally includes Washington machines slated for removal — or that were removed — from postal facilities in Seattle, Tacoma and Yakima, according to the lawsuit.
In an email, Swanson said no mail-processing equipment would be removed in Washington in light of Tuesday’s reversal.
DeJoy’s announcement came after changes that included the planned halt of processing outbound mail in three of Washington’s five mail-distribution facilities: in Wenatchee, Yakima and Tacoma.
The lawsuit alleged those shutdowns would “slow delivery time” and “may also move up collection times, particularly in rural areas, and make it less likely for ballots to get postmarked in a timely way.”
“For example, a letter sent from Yakima, Washington, to a location across town will be sent all the way to Spokane for processing and then back to Yakima,” according to the lawsuit. “A letter sent from Olympia to a location across town will be sent up the I-5 corridor to Seattle for processing and then back down to Olympia.”
In a statement, U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Sunnyside, Yakima County, said the Postal Service has struggled financially and in recent years has seen “significant decreases in operations throughout Central Washington.”
“This is not a new problem, but we have been able to successfully conduct mail-in voting for the past several years,” Newhouse said in prepared remarks.
Newhouse cited some postal funding he has supported, and said “I believe it is the responsibility of Congress to ensure the solvency and the function of USPS.”
Told about DeJoy’s announcement during his news conference, Ferguson said the lawsuit would continue for now.
“If I was the federal government, I would not want to walk into a courtroom in Eastern Washington … and try and defend why ‘we did not go through the proper process in enacting these changes.'”
“And if they want to try and walk it back, wonderful,” Ferguson said of DeJoy’s reversal, adding later: “Zero chance we take our foot off the gas, we want that in writing and confirmed, before we delay or stop what we’re doing.”