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caption: The U.S. Postal Service says it has already handled 100 million election ballots this year.
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The U.S. Postal Service says it has already handled 100 million election ballots this year.
Credit: AP

More mail slowdowns as Election Day nears

With Election Day just days away, postal customers, members of Congress and Washington’s Attorney General say mail is moving slowly in many places.

“My medicine from the VA is taking an extra couple of days. We have to get ahead of the system quite a bit to make sure we don’t run out,” said Bill Vaughn, a retired Army veteran from Redmond.

U.S. Postal Service officials say they are dedicating “extraordinary” resources nationwide to make sure ballots get delivered quickly – and faster than all other mail.

“The Postal Service knows this is go-time and it’s doing absolutely everything it can to move these ballots quickly and efficiently in light of Tuesday’s deadlines,” Justice Department attorney Joseph Borson told federal judge Stanley Bastian of Yakima in a hearing about the slowdowns on Friday.

Among the unusual steps being taken before Election Day: Mail carriers will even be collecting mail this Sunday on some routes.

Despite promises from the Postmaster General and federal court orders to reverse mail-delaying initiatives made this summer, mail service has only intermittently improved since then.

On-time performance data released by the Postal Service under court order show first-class mail in Washington state being delivered on time (within 1-3 days in the contiguous United States) at least 90% of the time until July.

That’s when the Postal Service started dismantling mail-sorting machines around the country, including 40% of machines in the Seattle area, as KUOW reported in August.

Performance dropped to 75% on time in the Postal Service’s “Seattle District,” which includes most of Washington state and North Idaho.

On-time performance improved in September, but dropped again in October.

“Things have not gotten any better in the last month,” Vaughn said regarding his medication deliveries. “If anything, they’ve gotten worse.”

This time, postal officials say letters and packages are slow because they’re making ballots their highest priority.

“We acknowledge that our full focus and prioritization on election ballots is having a near-term impact on the overall on-time performance of other products throughout the network,” said Kristin Seaver, chief retail and delivery officer of the Postal Service, in a press release.

Nationwide, 81% of first-class mail was delivered on time the week beginning October 17.

The Postal Service’s goal is 96% on time.

With five of 12 letter-sorting machines no longer in service at the Redmond facility – the main mail-handling operation for Seattle’s eastern suburbs – mail sorting has to begin at 6 a.m. instead of noon to go out on schedule. That's according to Redmond Councilmember Varisha Khan.

Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Medina) is calling for Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson to investigate slowdowns at the Redmond postal facility.

Postal officials declined DelBene’s request for information on the current status of letter-sorting machines there, saying it qualified as commercially sensitive information. But they did offer that the remaining machines had adequate capacity to handle mail promptly.

“My team follows up on every complaint we receive about these issues, whether that’s from a member of Congress or an individual,” Ferguson said in an emailed statement. “This will be handled the same way.”

On Friday, Ferguson’s team was in federal court to protect the integrity of mail service and the election in other states.

While mail service has slowed somewhat in Washington state, service has gotten much worse in some swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin.

The Washington Attorney General’s office is leading a 14-state coalition to make sure ballots in those swing states are delivered quickly.

In Michigan and Wisconsin, ballots have to be received, not just postmarked, by Tuesday 8 p.m.

In a hearing Friday, Washington Solicitor General Noah Purcell urged Judge Bastian to order measures starting this weekend, including nightly sweeps of post offices to look for misplaced ballots, to make sure the Postal Service complies with Bastian’s September 17 court order.

“If they’re able to do everything they say they are going to do this weekend, that will go a long ways. If we find out next Wednesday that they weren’t, it will be too late and there will no way to undo the harm,” Purcell said.

Bastian issued an order Friday night for mandated nightly sweeps of postal facilities, starting Halloween night, in most of Wisconsin and the Detroit area, with reports to be sent to him by 10 a.m. Pacific Time the next day.

He also ordered the Postal Service to make every effort to deliver all ballots by 8 p.m. local time on Tuesday so that every vote cast is counted.

Given the urgency of the situation, he told the lawyers he’s available all weekend.

“It sure would be nice if all the states adopted a system like the state of Washington,” Bastian said, referring to the state’s long-standing vote by mail system, which requires ballots to be postmarked by Election Day. “It certainly has worked well over the past 10 years.”

This story has been updated with details of the Friday night court order.