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Ferguson asks judge to reverse Postal Service changes ahead of election

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 10, 2020

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, shown in this photo from last year, has asked a federal judge to reverse changes occurring at the U.S. Postal Service.  (Elaine Thompson/AP)
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, shown in this photo from last year, has asked a federal judge to reverse changes occurring at the U.S. Postal Service. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson asked a federal judge in Yakima late Wednesday to reverse what the state’s top lawyer called “drastic changes” at the U.S. Postal Service, claiming the recent moves jeopardize mail delivery across the country ahead of November’s election.

If Judge Stanley Bastian approves Ferguson’s request for a preliminary injunction, the USPS would be required to halt a recent effort by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to save money by cutting down on delayed and extra truck trips. The motion also calls for the Postal Service to replace recently dismantled mail sorting machines and formalize a longstanding practice of prioritizing election mail.

“The Postal Service provides a critical lifeline to our veterans and seniors,” Ferguson said in a statement. “With the national election less than two months away, we are seeking a judicial order protecting this critical government service.”

Ferguson and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro are leading a group of 20 states in two separate lawsuits, filed Aug. 18, seeking to stop a range of changes implemented under DeJoy, a major GOP donor and former logistics executive who took the helm at the USPS in mid-June.

The lawsuit filed by Washington and 13 other states in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington claims the postmaster general eliminated overtime and changed how election mail is classified, among other changes, but DeJoy and other USPS leaders have since clarified that overtime continues to be “approved as needed” and election mail will be treated the same as in past years.

Concerns over the agency’s handling of election mail increased after The Spokesman-Review reported Aug. 9 that the Postal Service’s top lawyer had warned Secretary of State Kim Wyman that state election laws, which let Washingtonians register to vote by mail up until eight days before Election Day, were inconsistent with USPS delivery standards.

The nonprofit bulk rate postage many states use to send ballots to voters can take up to 10 days for delivery, according to those standards. Although postal workers typically expedite election mail regardless of the postage class used, the USPS has never made that official policy. Ferguson’s motion calls for that practice to be formalized.

Aug. 18, the day the lawsuits were filed, DeJoy announced he would suspend the removal of sorting machines and blue collection boxes – both processes were set in motion before he took office – and made assurances that post office hours would not be changed, no processing plants would be closed, and overtime would continue to be authorized.

The motion Ferguson filed Wednesday night reflects a clearer understanding of what actually caused up to 20% of first-class and bulk-rate mail to be delivered late since DeJoy’s first day on the job.

The most direct cause of those delays, according to documents DeJoy provided to Congress Aug. 31, was his order to minimize late and additional trips by trucks carrying mail between USPS facilities.

That directive, which requires trucks to leave at a scheduled time whether or not mail is ready, failed to account for fluctuations in mail volume and other factors that can cause delays in processing, American Postal Workers Union Washington President Ryan Harris said.

Bastian approved Ferguson’s request for expedited discovery in the lawsuit, saying in a hearing Aug. 27, “This case is unlike any other case this court has been involved in. Time is of the essence.” In response, the Postal Service produced more than 2,300 pages of documents on Sept. 6.

“I think everybody in this country is relying on the Postal Service to do their job,” Bastian said in the hearing. “So I hope at some point we will be hearing from the Postal Service not a bunch of procedural arguments or jurisdictional arguments, but some assurance to the American public that the Postal Service is up to the challenge of delivering ballots to the voters and back to the states so they can be appropriately counted.”

Bastian has scheduled a hearing on Ferguson’s motion for Thursday.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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