The United States Postal Service has warned election officials across the country, including those in key battleground states such as Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona, that ballots requested by their deadlines and promptly mailed back may not be delivered in time to be counted.
The warnings come as the Postal Service has made changes this summer to limit overtime and increase efficiency, which according to an internal memo could result in mail temporarily being left behind.
The letters, first reported by The Washington Post, prompted immediate questions from the League of Women Voters and suspicion from the American Postal Workers Union that the warnings were politically motivated.
U.S. Postal Service General Counsel Thomas Marshall told elections officials in the letter, “There is significant risk that, at least in certain circumstances, ballots may be requested in a manner that is consistent with your election rules and returned promptly, and yet not be returned in time to be counted.”
He recommended ballot requests be received by state officials at least 15 days before the Nov. 3 election. Officials should allow a week to deliver ballots to voters.
And, Marshall wrote, voters should put their ballots in the mail at least a week before the state deadline to receive them. For states that require ballots to be received on Election Day, that would be Oct. 27.
Some states allow voters to request ballots closer to the election. In Michigan, for instance, voters can request a mail-in ballot up until 5 p.m. on the Friday before the election. They must be returned by 8 p.m. on Election Day.
Forty states received a letter warning that their deadlines may not allow time for ballots to be returned and counted. Six states and the District of Columbia received letters warning of lesser problems.
Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island and New Mexico got letters saying voters should have sufficient time to receive, complete and return their ballots under their timetables.
Marshall said in the letter he was following up on a letter he sent in May, which warned states to account for delivery times when setting deadlines.
Election officials recommend voters act early
Some states have adjusted their recommendations for when voters should request and mail their ballots, even if it’s too late to actually change their deadlines under state law.
“Since receiving this letter, we have revised our recommendation and are now encouraging voters to mail ballots by Oct. 27 to help ensure it arrives on time,” Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said in a written statement.
Arizona’s formal deadline to request a mail-in ballot is Oct. 23. Ballots must be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day to be counted, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Elections officials in Arizona are adding drop boxes and telling voters they can skip lines if they want to drop off a ballot on Election Day.
North Carolina’s Secretary of State’s office, which received one of the warning letters, is encouraging voters to request their ballots as soon as possible, spokesman Patrick Gannon said.
That state allows voters to request an absentee ballot as late as 5 p.m. on Oct. 27, according to the office. That would leave just a week for the ballot to be mailed to a voter, filled out, and returned to the election office. But unlike many states, North Carolina will accept ballots three days after Election Day if they’re postmarked on or before that day.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose sought legislation to shift the deadline to request an absentee ballot from the Saturday before the election to seven days prior to Election Day, spokeswoman Maggie Sheehan said in an email. However, Ohio lawmakers did not approve the proposed change.
All registered voters in Ohio will receive instructions around Labor Day on how to request an absentee ballot. Those instructions say voters should return the ballot request form by Oct. 27, said Sheehan.
The deadline, however, remains three days before the election.
Warning is ‘troubling and odd’
Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections for Common Cause, said the blanket warning is “really troubling and odd,” and it plays into President Donald Trump’s attempts to create confusion for voters and state election officials.
Mark Dimondstein, president of the 200,000-member American Postal Workers Union, said the letters appear to raise legitimate concerns about states’ rules for mailed ballots.
“The states and local entities that run the elections have to take into account the operating needs of the postal system,” said Dimondstein, who hadn’t seen the letters. “It takes time to get letters to voters and back.”
Union executives had never heard of similar letters in the past, he said, prompting the question, “Does this raise the red flag that the president of the United States doesn’t want people to vote by mail?”
“We’re certainly concerned that it’s being done to raise voter questions about the postal system,” he said.
In April, Trump called the postal service a “joke.” He said Thursday he opposed additional funding because he doesn’t want to expand its ability to handle mail-in ballots. He has claimed, without evidence, that mail-in ballots are vulnerable to fraud.
In response to inquiries about the letters, a spokeswoman for the postal service pointed reporters to copies of the letters posted online late Friday. She did not respond to a follow-up request seeking further comment.
Tough times at the Postal Service
The letters were sent against a bleak backdrop at the organization Americans have relied on for generations to deliver birthday cards, bills, magazines and packages on time.
In recent years, the postal service has increased its handling of packages, delivering items that consumers order through Amazon and other retailers. But the volume of other types of mail has dropped sharply as consumers shift to email and other online communication.
“USPS cannot fund its current level of services and financial obligations,” the Government Accountability Office wrote in 2019. It warned that postal service's financial condition “is deteriorating and unsustainable.”
The system has lost $69 billion over the past 11 federal fiscal years, including a $3.9 billion loss in 2018, the GAO said. Total unfunded liabilities and debt are now more than double the postal service’s annual revenue.
Savings from cost-reduction efforts have “dwindled” in recent years, the report said, and its expenses are rising faster than revenues.
Earlier this summer, postal service employees received a memo outlining changes in how mail is handled — part of an effort to improve efficiency and limit overtime. It said carriers must leave for their routes on time, and no extra or late trips would be authorized.
“Temporarily we may see mail left behind or mail on the workroom floor or docks ... which is not typical,” the memo said. “We will address root causes of these delays and adjust the very next day.”
Dimondstein repeated calls for postal service officials to reverse cuts in overtime, decisions to remove mail sorting machines and other moves he said could slow mail deliveries.
“The postal service should not be slowed down,” said Dimondstein. “Those policies need to be reversed.”
Jeanette Senecal, senior director of mission impact for the League of Women Voters, said states need to maximize options for voters to return ballots, including public buildings and drop boxes.
“These options should be widely publicized so that voters are aware of these opportunities,” Senecal said. “The message for voters is clear: Act early.”