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Postal Service: Michigan deadlines for mail-in voting might disqualify some ballots

The U.S. Postal Service has warned Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson that mail delivery timelines pose "significant risk" to ballots sent too close to Election Day and that could lead to their disqualification. 

USPS General Counsel Thomas J. Marshall wrote to Benson that Michigan election laws and certain deadlines for requesting and casting mail-in ballots are “incongruous” and “incompatible” 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 in a letter a week before a primary election that saw record absentee participation in Michigan.

Election workers Patricia Adams, Phillip Phillip and Bob Morton work on counting absentee voter ballots at the Allen Park municipal offices in Allen Park, Michigan on August 4, 2020.

He added the Postal Service "cannot adjust its delivery standards to accommodate state election law."

The letter comes amid growing concerns among Democrats in Congress over reported changes at the Postal Service causing a slowdown in mail delivery nationwide. 

Michigan U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, the top Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees the Postal Service, last week launched an investigation into the delays, stressing impacts on the delivery of prescriptions, business mail and the record number of ballots expected to be mailed this fall in the presidential election due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Marshall advised Benson that election officials keep delivery times in mind when sending election mail to voters and when informing voters of transit times for mail-in ballots so they are returned in time. 

Benson's office said Marshall's letter reiterated "the importance of a number of things we are already doing."

"We have been working with USPS officials in Michigan to ensure that election mailings are prioritized in their system. The changes we have made — to our envelopes, our guidance to clerks and the recommendations we make to voters about when to mail their ballots — are the direct result of that collaboration, which we expect will continue," Benson spokeswoman Tracy Wimmer said. 

"If this letter aims to backtrack on that collaboration or the promise of prioritization of election mail, that would be very concerning."

Letter discovered after inquiry

The letter from Marshall was dated July 29 and delivered July 30 to Benson's Lansing office, where few employees were working in person due to the coronavirus.

The letter was only discovered after The Detroit News inquired about it Monday following reports of letters sent to other secretaries of state. 

Last week, Benson said more than 10,000 of the 2.5 million ballots submitted in the Aug. 5 primary election were rejected, but the office is unclear as to the reason for those rejections.

Among the possible explanations could be the delivery of the ballot after Election Day. Other reasons could be that a signature on the absentee ballot that didn't match state records, or a crossover vote in which the voter marked individuals from more than one party in the partisan section of the ballot. 

Marshall's letter was in large part a warning ahead of the Nov. 3 election that Michigan voters still in possession of their absentee ballots a week or more before the election should deliver their ballots in person. 

He noted most first-class mail is delivered two to five days after it's received by the Postal Service, and most pieces sent by the nonprofit marketing-mail rate are delivered three to 10 days after they're received at the Post Office. 

To account for these delivery standards and other unforeseen events, Marshall said voters should submit their ballot requests early enough to be received by election officials at a minimum of 15 days before the election. 

Voters should "generally" mail their completed ballots at least a week before the state's due date, so they should be mailed by voters no later than Oct. 27, Marshall advised.

Michigan law permits voters to apply by mail for a ballot until Election Day, and allows for ballots to be mailed to voters until four days before the election, he noted. 

"If a requested ballot is transmitted to the voter by mail at or near that 4-day deadline, there is a significant risk that the ballot will not reach the voter before Election Day, and accordingly that the voter will not be able to use the ballot to cast his or her vote," Marshall wrote. 

First-class controversy

The Postal Service's general counsel also said election officials should use first-class mail to transmit blank ballots, allowing one week for delivery to voters, because the lower-priority marketing mail could result in slower delivery times. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and other top Democrats wrote Wednesday to U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. 

Schumer warned sending absentee ballots first-class would nearly triple the cost for jurisdictions that pay the marketing-mail rate, knowing the Postal Service typically treats all election mail as first class. 

"At a time when people will have to vote by mail in record numbers because they can't or won't go vote in person, the Postmaster General is saying we should triple the rate of cost to vote by mail? What a despicable derogation of democracy," Schumer said Tuesday on the Senate floor.

"What is his rationale? A small amount of money. Ballots are a small percentage of the mail that's delivered. It's to discourage people from voting."

A spokesman for the Postal Service did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

The Michigan Secretary of State's Office is aware of no Michigan jurisdictions that don't already use first-class mail for election mailings, Wimmer said. 

In Detroit, absentee ballots are sent first-class mail, Clerk Janice Winfrey said. Still, Winfrey sent a postcard to Detroit voters three weeks before the election warning them to submit their absentee ballots in person rather than rely on the mail system. 

"We realized early on the mail was going slow," she said.

In the past, some clerks had grown accustomed to using marketing mail on the assumption that the Postal Service would kick it up to first-class mail and would use first-class closer to Election Day, said former Michigan Bureau of Elections Director Chris Thomas.

But Thomas warned clerks should rely less on the speedy delivery of ballots — first class or otherwise — and that the Friday before elections might not be the wisest cutoff for new ballot requests by mail. 

"They moved it from Saturday to Friday a few years and that’s nice, but they should have gone back further," said Thomas, who served from 1981 to 2017.

"I take the position that you shouldn’t mail your ballot unless you absolutely have to," he said, noting the increase in drop boxes for hand deliveries of absentee ballots. 

Cities receive late ballots

Even with the three-week warning, the Detroit clerk's office has received 820 late absentee ballots that can't be counted, Winfrey said. Nearly 80,000 people voted absentee in the city.

Winfrey has ordered 25 additional drop boxes and will open 13 additional voting centers before November to encourage in-person absentee deliveries. The city offered two drop boxes during the primary election. 

Like the Postal Service, Winfrey agreed that Michigan's law requiring clerks to mail out absentee ballots up to four days before Election Day is impractical given mail delays.

"The way the mail is moving now, it absolutely is accurate," she said. "We need a change in the law to keep up with the times.”

In Warren, the clerk’s office uses first-class mail if it has fewer than 200 pieces of mail to send, City Clerk Sonja Djurovic Buffa said. The city uses bulk mail if the pieces surpass 200, and hand delivers those items to the post office to cut down mail time. 

The Postal Service has “been very gracious with us,” and it has even offered to pick up those items in person, if needed, Buffa said. 

Additionally, “if the voter feels that they really don’t trust the mail, we’ll hand-deliver,” she said. 

Typically, the clerk’s office begins to warn voters to hand-deliver their absentee ballots the week before the election, but they're still are some stragglers each election. 

Between Aug. 5 and Thursday, Warren had received 84 absentee ballots that arrived late to the clerk’s office and could not be counted. Overall, the city had 18,865 absentee ballots counted. 

Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, has said DeJoy has refused to provide "real" answers about service delays and changes that could undermine the Postal Service. 

DeJoy, a donor to President Donald Trump's campaign, has limited overtime and extra mail processing trips, leading to mail backlogs, according to news reports

But DeJoy argued last week that the Postal Service's delivery standards have been in place for "many years" and remain unchanged. 

"These standards have not changed, and despite any assertions to the contrary, we are not slowing down election mail or any other mail," DeJoy told the USPS Board of Governors on Friday.

"Instead, we continue to employ a robust and proven process to ensure proper handling of all election mail."

Trump has publicly doubted the Postal Service’s ability to deliver ballots, and the president has claimed without evidence that allowing more people to vote by mail will lead to corruption.

Trump said Thursday he opposes additional funding for the financially ailing Postal Service in part because the agency needs the money to process a surge in mail-in ballots expected during the pandemic.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer criticized Trump for the lack of funding Thursday and said the USPS "needs to be fully funded, full stop."

"President Trump’s attempts to sabotage the postal service are deeply disturbing," Whitmer said in a tweet. "Americans rely on our postal service for prescriptions, voting, social security checks, and more."

An infusion of money for the Postal Service was a sticking point in negotiations between congressional Democrats and the White House that broke down last week. Trump wrongly said Thursday that Democrats are pushing for universal mail-in voting, which they have not.

"They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump said on the Fox Business Network.

“If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.”

Peters responded on Twitter, saying, "The Postal Service shouldn’t be political or partisan. We cannot allow the President to undermine it. @USPS is a service for every American — no matter where you live."

mburke@detroitnews.com