Courts on both sides of the United States issued rulings on Thursday that could expand mail-in voting in the election in November, as the postmaster general privately apologized to state officials for missteps in his agency’s efforts to educate voters on mail-in ballots.
In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court paved the way for more mail-in ballots to be counted by extending the due date they must be received by election officials and allowing expanded use of drop boxes.
In Washington State, a federal judge said he would block operational and policy changes made by the Postal Service in recent months that have slowed mail delivery, and that critics said could hinder voting by mail.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who instituted those changes, conceded during a video conference with election officials on Thursday afternoon that he had failed to adequately consult with state election officials on a postcard that was sent to addresses nationwide to educate voters about mail-in ballots. The apology came as some state election officials had publicly clashed with the Postal Service over mail voting, including accusing Mr. DeJoy and his team of deliberately providing misinformation about how to vote by mail.
Taken together, the developments were a victory for Democrats and others pushing to expand mail voting before an election in which record use of the practice is expected because of the coronavirus pandemic. They also came on a day that began with President Trump repeating his frequent attacks on voting by mail, which he and his allies have been falsely claiming is ripe for fraud.
In a post labeled by Twitter as misleading, the president claimed the results of the election might “NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED” because of mail-in ballots. “Stop Ballot Madness!” he said.
During the video conference on Thursday, Mr. DeJoy struck a starkly different tone. He defended the postcard as a good-faith effort “to encourage voters to inform themselves on how to vote by mail effectively,” even as he conceded that he had failed to “give you a heads-up to see the mailer in advance.”
“We will do better next time,” he said.
And Mr. DeJoy, a major Trump donor who had been accused by Democrats of helping the president try to sabotage the mail vote, sought to distance himself from Mr. Trump’s language and that of other members of his administration.
Secretary of State Jena Griswold of Colorado, who had sued Mr. DeJoy over the postcard, pressed him during the video conference about his “specific plan to address the misinformation coming from the administration” about voting by mail.
Mr. DeJoy claimed he had at times “disagreed with the president publicly on that particular issue,” but he did not offer specifics on his disagreements, according to people who participated in the video conference, which was private and included dozens of secretaries of state from across the country.
After the video conference, Ms. Griswold, a Democrat, said she found it “very noteworthy that he says he’s publicly in disagreement with the president” but suggested she was not fully convinced. “I also think actions speak louder than words,” she said in an interview.
The frayed relationship between the Postal Service and election administrators has increased concerns about election-time chaos, including the potential disqualification of as many as one million ballots for missed deadlines, as a number of states have introduced new rules to drastically expand the use of mail-in voting and ballot-collection drop boxes.
Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, Democrat of Pennsylvania, a crucial battleground state, had expressed concerns about warnings from the post office regarding delivery times. Her department sought relief in a court filing.
The ruling in Pennsylvania, which came in response to a lawsuit brought by the state Democratic Party, effectively expanded mail-in voting by ordering that ballots postmarked by Election Day be counted if they were received by 5 p.m. on the Friday after the election. The court added additional relief for ballots “received within this period that lack a postmark or other proof of mailing, or for which the postmark or other proof of mailing is illegible” and said they would “be presumed to have been mailed by Election Day, unless a preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that it was mailed after Election Day.”
Election 2020 ›
Understand Mail-In Voting
Updated Sept. 15, 2020
- Rise in Mail Voting: About three-quarters of all American voters will be eligible to receive a ballot in the mail for the 2020 election — the most in U.S. history. Roughly 80 million mail ballots may flood election offices, more than double what was returned in 2016.
- Surge in Paper Mail: The long-troubled Postal Service may be overwhelmed by the task of delivering tens of millions more votes cast by mail.
- How to Count Ballots? There may be various battles over how to count ballots. Should mailed ballots be counted if they are received by Election Day or simply postmarked by Election Day? Does a ballot count if the post office does not postmark it at all?
- Do You Still Have Time?: Voters in 35 states can request ballots so close to Election Day that it may not be feasible for their ballots to be mailed to them and sent back to election officials in time to be counted. Here’s a list of state’s where it’s risky to procrastinate.
- A Long Road to Election Day: It is estimated that party organizations, campaigns and interest groups across the county have already filed 160 lawsuits trying to shape the rules of the election.
The court also allowed for the expanded use of drop boxes for mail ballots, an alternative for voters who have been hesitant to trust the Postal Service. Mr. Trump’s campaign had sought to block this in Pennsylvania, filing a lawsuit in federal court claiming that it would lead to widespread fraud. A federal judge put that lawsuit on hold to allow related cases to work their way through the state courts.
The decision came as a federal judge in Yakima, Wash., issued a nationwide injunction to force the Postal Service to reverse recent operational changes. A coalition of 14 states sued the Postal Service in August, charging that the changes were carried out unlawfully. Mr. DeJoy had already reversed several contentious policies by the time of the states’ filing.
Though the written order from the judge had not yet been released on Thursday evening, the states asked the court to order the Postal Service to continue its longstanding practice of treating all election mail as first-class mail.
“We’re no longer simply taking the postmaster general’s word that he’s going to do something,” said Bob Ferguson, the Democratic attorney general in Washington State. “The result of this decision should instill confidence in Americans that they can vote by mail with confidence and that their voice will be heard.”
David Partenheimer, a Postal Service spokesman, suggested that the agency might appeal the decision.
“While we are exploring our legal options, there should be no doubt that the Postal Service is ready and committed to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives,” he said in a statement.
The video conference on Thursday was seen as an opportunity to soothe tensions between the states and the Postal Service. Secretary of State Frank LaRose, Republican of Ohio, asked his colleagues at the outset to “keep it civil.”
The conversation remained mostly courteous, and Mr. DeJoy — who has come under withering criticism from Democrats, including calls for his resignation, amid accusations that he is a political pawn of Mr. Trump — emphasized how much pressure the Postal Service was under to successfully carry out the election.
“We have the eyes of the public on us with regard to this more than ever,” Mr. DeJoy said. “We cannot fail on this.”
Justin Glass, the director of the Postal Service’s election mail operations, told the state election officials that the agency would pull out “all the stops” to make sure ballots were delivered on time, delivering even on Sundays.
But he added: “I want to be realistic. Even pulling out all the stops, the Postal Service cannot guarantee” that all last-minute voters “will be able to vote by mail.”
Some election officials left the call satisfied but skeptical about what Mr. DeJoy said.
“Trust, but verify,” said Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Democrat of California. “The postmaster general obviously said all the right things that we wanted to hear. I think it’s all about the follow-up and the commitments he made on the call.”
Steve Simon, the Democratic secretary of state of Minnesota, said Mr. DeJoy and his team “hit the right notes” on the call, including by pledging to make every effort to deliver ballots in a timely way.
“Based on the words on the call today, I am confident,” Mr. Simon said.
Secretary of State Kim Wyman of Washington, a Republican who had expressed concerns about mail delays and criticized the Postal Service for failing to communicate with states before mailing the postcard, said she “felt much better” after the video conference.
“They understand that the success of the election is in their hands, and they need to step up,” she said in an interview.
In a video message to employees released on Thursday, Mr. DeJoy also said the Postal Service was prepared “to pull out every stop” to ensure that every ballot was counted. However, he contended that the timely delivery of ballots was at least partly out of his agency’s hands.
“We are asking state and local officials and voters to do their part as well,” he said. “We can’t control when election officials send us ballots to be delivered to voters, and we can’t control when voters give us their completed ballots to be sent to election officials.”