Judge blocks Postal Service changes that slowed mail

YAKIMA, Wash. (CN) – A federal judge has temporarily stopped U.S. Postal Service changes that may affect the upcoming 2020 elections, calling them “a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service” ahead of a presidential election that will be largely by mail.

The changes made by the Postal Service include policies requiring carriers and trucks to leave mail behind to stay on a set schedule, and ending a long-standing policy treating election mail as the equivalent of first class mail.

Chief U.S. District Judge Stanley Bastian of the Eastern District of Washington issued a temporary injunction Thursday from the bench after hearing arguments by a group of 14 states suing over the service cuts they say are intentional and meant to use the Postal Service for political purposes.

The states sued the U.S. Postal Service, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and President Donald Trump in August, arguing the changes implemented in July — allegedly to save money — were part of “a partisan political motive for making it harder to vote by mail.”

The same day the states filed suit, DeJoy announced he was suspending some changes, including the removal of mail collection boxes and processing and sorting machines.

Two other changes, a “leave mail behind” policy aimed at improving on-time delivery by strictly adhering to a set schedule, even if mail was left behind, and a new practice of only treating election mail as first class if states pay required postage rates remained in effect and were the subject of Thursday’s hearing.

The policies are causing a “drastic decline” in on-time mail delivery and should be immediately stopped to prevent delays in ballot deliveries for the 2020 election in November, Kristin Beneski, with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office and representing state plaintiffs, told Bastian.

“This threatens to disrupt the timely delivery of election mail,” Beneski said.

States anticipate a surge in mail-in voting due to the Covid-19 pandemic and wariness of in-person polling.

A number of ballots were delivered late and not counted in summer primary elections because of the new policies, Beneski said.

She asked for an injunction that would apply to the whole Postal Service, immediately stopping the service changes causing delays.

Any substantial changes to service must be submitted to the Postal Regulatory Commission, something DeJoy did not do, Beneski said.

Representing the Postal Service, Joseph Borson with the Justice Department argued the policies were not “changes,” just managerial decisions and did not require commission approval.

“There really aren’t any changes,” he said.

“If nothing has changed, then your client would have no objection to a preliminary injunction?” Bastian asked.

Borson said the injunction would require the Postal Service to make changes “we have not made,” including treating all election mail as first class mail. Ballots mailed out by states to residents are in the same deliver category as advertising circulars, but states can always pay additional postage if they are concerned about timely delivery, he said.

He also said federal court is not the proper place for the states to complain. Congress said complaints about the Postal Service should first go to the Postal Regulatory Commission and commission rulings could be directly appealed to the D.C. Circuit.

The states were just speculating that ballots would be delayed and the Postal Service has “largely resolved” the delays initially caused by some of the new management policies, Borson said.

“The Postal Service is ready to deal with the coming election mail,” Borson said.

After the hearing, Bastian issued a temporary injunction prohibiting the ongoing service changes, finding the states showed “harm has already taken place.”

“This is not a rate and service case,” Bastian said, but involves allegations of using the Postal Service as “a tool for partisan politics of the 2020 election.”

Bastain is expected to issue a written order Thursday afternoon requiring the Postal Service to immediately stop its “leave mail behind” policy, continue its longstanding practice of treating all election mail as first class mail and replace any mail-sorting machines that are required to ensure timely processing of ballots.

“Today’s victory protects a critical institution for our country. Americans can now confidently vote by mail and have their voices heard,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement following the hearing.

Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin joined Washington state in the lawsuit.