The United States Postal Service failed to comply with a court-ordered deadline to search for an estimated 300,000 ballots that were not scanned as delivered by Election Day, as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the USPS by civil rights groups including the NAACP. The federal judge in the case angrily stated that “someone may have a price to pay” and threatened to make Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testify under oath.
The USPS has faced immense scrutiny in the past few months not just due to the unprecedented amount of voting by mail expected for the Nov. 3 election—some 64 million ballots, many of which have yet to be counted—but because of its ruinous Donald Trump-appointed postmaster general, DeJoy. The new USPS chief has ordered massive service cuts that have resulted in extensive delays and seemed like fairly obvious ploys to prevent mailed-in ballots from reaching election centers. (Trump has openly bragged that his administration’s attempts to undermine the USPS would help him rig the election.)
On Tuesday, D.C.’s District Court judge, Emmet G. Sullivan, had ordered the USPS to scour a dozen facilities that serve 15 states for over 300,000 ballots the agency said had been logged as entering the mail system but were never scanned as delivered. He set a deadline of 3:00 p.m. Tuesday for postal inspectors to carry out the sweep.
Per the Washington Post, the USPS was unable to account for tens of thousands of ballots that had entered its facilities:
Sullivan on Tuesday ordered officials from the Postal Inspection Service, the agency’s law enforcement arm, or the Postal Service Office of Inspector General, its independent watchdog, to inspect all processing facilities in the districts of Central Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Metro, Detroit, Colorado/Wyoming, Atlanta, Houston, Alabama, Northern New England (Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine), Greater South Carolina, South Florida, Lakeland (Wisconsin) and Arizona (which includes New Mexico) by 3 p.m.
The Postal Service continued Tuesday to try to track down the more than 300,000 ballots it said had entered processing plants but could not be traced. In 17 postal districts in swing states that account for 151 electoral votes, more than 81,000 ballots were untraceable. In Los Angeles, 48,120 ballots were missing, the most of any district. San Diego was next, with 42,543 unaccounted.
Importantly, this does not necessarily mean that 300,000 ballots just somehow disappeared. According to reports in Vice and Recode, what actually appears to have happened is that mail workers circumvented normal processes to manually yank ballots from the line and expedite them to their destinations.
So, according to the USPS, the likeliest outcome by far for those 300,000 ballots is that they were successfully prioritized for delivery to election centers, even if it came at the cost of accurate tracking. This may well be the case, but at this time there’s no paper trail to point to one way or the other.
Regardless, Department of Justice attorneys representing the USPS told the court at around 5:00 p.m. Tuesday that it had just sort of ignored Sullivan’s directive. Instead, they said they had conveniently interpreted the order as only requiring the USPS to get around to doing it sometime that day (specifically stating inspectors would carry out the sweeps between 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.).
“Given the time constraints set by this Court’s order, and the fact that Postal Inspectors operate on a nationwide basis, Defendants were unable to accelerate the daily review process to run from 12:30 pm to 3:00 pm without significantly disrupting preexisting activities on the day of the Election, something which Defendants did not understand the Court to invite or require,” DOJ attorney John Robinson wrote for the USPS, according to the Post.
According to Vice, mail inspectors reported finding just 13 undelivered ballots as of Wednesday morning.
“It just leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth for the clock to run out—game’s over—and then to find out there was no compliance with a very important court order,” an infuriated Sullivan said in court on Wednesday, per the Post.
According to CNBC, Sullivan added that “someone may have a price to pay for that. [...] The postmaster is either going to have to be deposed or appear before me and testify under oath about why some actions were not taken after the court issued its injunction... Whether we should spend time on that today, I’m not sure we should, but I’m not going to forget it either.”
The USPS also reported to the court on Wednesday that of 115,630 ballots known to be in its facilities on Tuesday, it had processed just 93.3 percent in a timely manner (most steps before pickup or delivery). That means nearly 8,000 may have been delivered too late to be counted, depending on which states they were bound for. Per CNBC, states reporting “relatively poor levels of mail deliveries of ballots” include the swing states of Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin.