USPS says Pennsylvania mail ballots may not be delivered on time, and state warns of 'overwhelming' risk to voters

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An election worker handles vote-by-mail ballots coming out of a sorting machine for the presidential primary at King County Elections in Renton, Washington, on March 10, 2020. - JASON REDMOND/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — The United States Postal Service warned Pennsylvania that mail ballots may not be delivered on time to be counted because the state’s deadlines are too tight for its “delivery standards,” casting fresh doubt on Pennsylvania’s ability to conduct much of the 2020 election by mail.

The warning came in a July 29 letter from Thomas J. Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president for the Postal Service, to Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, whose department oversees elections. That letter was made public for the first time late Thursday in a filing the Pennsylvania Department of State submitted to the state Supreme Court, in which it asked the court to order that mail ballots be counted as long as they are received up to three days after the Nov. 3 election.

If the court agrees, it will increase the likelihood that the results of the presidential race between President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden won’t be known for days after the election.

The post office’s letter to the state, which came as Trump has mounted false attacks on mail voting, warned that “certain deadlines for requesting and casting mail-in ballots are incongruous with the Postal Service’s delivery standards.”

“This mismatch creates a risk that ballots requested near the deadline under state law will not be returned by mail in time to be counted under your laws as we understand them,” Marshall wrote.

Marshall’s letter, the Department of State told the court in its new filing, represented “a significant change to the outlook for voting by mail in the general election.” Until the July 29 warning, the filing said, “the Postal Service had not indicated the likelihood of widespread, continuing, multiple-day mail-delivery delays presenting an overwhelming, statewide risk of disenfranchisement for significant numbers of voters utilizing mail-in ballots.”

Now the department, which is part of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, wants the state Supreme Court to order that mail ballots be counted if they are received by elections officials by the Friday after Election Day, as long as there is no proof (such as a postmark) that they were mailed after Election Day. Current state law requires that mail ballots be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

The filing also served to drop the Wolf administration’s defense against part of a lawsuit seeking to change the mail ballot deadlines. That reversal underscored the extent to which widespread mail delivery delays, along with Trump’s acknowledgement that his refusal to increase post office funding is tied to his belief that mail voting will hurt his reelection chances, have alarmed Democrats across the state.

USPS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Department of State declined to comment beyond its legal filing.

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