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Nationwide injunction issued to shield mail-in votes during pandemic

MANHATTAN (CN) — Finding that multiple managerial failures under the Trump administration have undermined the mission of the U.S. Postal Service, a federal judge ordered the agency on Monday to preapprove all overtime for the upcoming election and to prioritize all ballot-related mail.

“They have not provided trusted assurance and comfort that citizens will be able to cast ballots with full confidence that their votes would be timely collected and counted,” the 87-page opinion states. “Rather, as detailed below, their actions have given rise to management and operational confusion, to directives that tend to generate uncertainty as to who is in charge of policies that ultimately could affect the reliability of absentee ballots, thus potentially discouraging voting by mail.”

In granting the national injunction, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero emphasized that the nation is expected to see a record volume of absentee and other mail ballots for the 2020 election because of the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Several candidates for office and New York voters brought the underlying suit last month, responding to controversial cost-cutting changes to the U.S. Postal Service put in place by the newly installed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.

The only postmaster general in two decades to lack experience in the Postal Service, DeJoy cited budget reform in banning extra mail deliveries while also unveiling sweeping cuts to overtime and ordering a freeze on executive hiring. President Donald Trump meanwhile has bragged that “universal mail-in voting” would be impossible without the funding measures his administration is stonewalling.

DeJoy did put the measures on hold until after the presidential election, but

Judge Marrero’s order says the parties have until noon Friday to reach a settlement to make sure that mail-in ballots are properly handled.

“The right to vote is too vital a value in our democracy to be left in a state of suspense in the minds of voters weeks before a presidential election, raising doubts as to whether their votes will ultimately be counted,” Marrero wrote.

If both sides fail to arrive at an order by the end of the week, Marrero said he will impose his own injunction that ensures postal trucks can make late and extra trips, and that postal workers get overtime preapproved from late October through early November.

The judge also said he would mandate the Postal Service to treat all election mail — including voter registration materials, absentee or mail-in ballot applications, polling place notifications, blank ballots, and completed ballots — as first-class mail or priority mail express.

Furthermore the USPS must file weekly reports to keep the public apprised of its progress in meeting appropriate benchmarks, and issue appropriate guidance on the national level.

The ruling comes a week after Judge Marrero held a 3 1/2-hour remote evidentiary hearing where he heard testimony from Robert Cintron, vice president for logistics; Angela Curtis, vice president for retail and post office operations; and Justin Glass, director of the postal service’s election mail operations.

The judge declined to order testimony at the hearing from DeJoy.

A representative for the Department of Justice declined to comment on the ruling Monday morning. A spokesperson for the Postal Service said the agency is reviewing the court’s decision.

Queens-based attorneys Remy Green and Ali Najmi — who won court battles earlier this summer to hold New York’s canceled Democratic primary and to recount late mail-in ballots from that June race — applauded Marrero’s decision.

“The Postal Service has long promised that ‘[n]either snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,’” Green said Monday. “The Court rightly added the obvious footnote: fixing an election and cost-cutting cannot cut it as an exception to that promise,” Green added.

Najmi said Monday that Monday’s injunction “will ensure the integrity of the election.”

Among those celebrating the ruling was Mondaire Jones, a plaintiff in the suit who is running for New York’s 17th Congressional District.

“The stakes of this November’s election are too high to watch from the sidelines,” Jones said in a statement Monday morning. “Now more than ever, our democracy is on the line, our rights are on the line, and the fate of this nation is on the line.”

The Postal Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last week in Washington state, Chief U.S. District Judge Stanley Bastian issued a temporary injunction from the bench blocking U.S. Postal Service changes that may affect the upcoming 2020 elections.

Judge Bastian called the operation changes “a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service” ahead of a presidential election that will be largely by mail.